Radio 4 have just broadcast a classic little documentary on the people behind the automated voices that currently rule our lives. They didn’t interview the Silverlink woman although they did talk to the man who does most of the train station announcements. He seemed a mite offended that people had complained he wasn’t apologetic enough when cancelling their train, pointing out that he, too, had to take the train occasionally, and that he did feel sorry for people who were delayed. That isn’t quite the point of course. The point is that he’s just an actor, and having him apologise for a late running or cancelled train is not exactly what we want. It’s hardly his fault. What we want is the people responsible apologising – if not Japanese style with the company directors prostrating themselves full length on the platform (although that would be nice) – then at least in the name of the company rather than the slightly insulting ‘I’m sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused to your journey’. You’ve got to love the mealy-mouthed may in that sentence. Not only are we being apologised to by an ‘I’ who doesn’t exist except as an actor animated by a computer, but in the same breath they are doubting whether there’s anything worth apologising for at all. (My other half has just suggested an alternative wording for the late and cancelled train announcements but this is a family blog, and there’s been enough death and destruction in the last few weeks so I won’t repeat it.)
I didn’t mind too much when they put in automated announcements at Hackney Central because prior to that they just let us stew in silence. But I did feel sad when they replaced the live station announcements in Slough a few years ago with a robot voice. The woman who did the station announcements there seemed to take a real pride in her job and she did it beautifully. She had the cadence absolutely right – rising up at the name of the penultimate station, then down for the final destination – and I could (and did, sometimes though not voluntarily) have listened to her for hours. It’s not often you can witness someone doing their job well day in and day out, and there wasn’t much else to enjoy in Slough I can tell you. She also had the nous (which a computer will never learn) not to start a crucial station announcement just as a freight train was rumbling through. They missed a trick when they didn’t use her to record all of the announcements for the network but obviously some psychologist has worked out that the British respond best to a woman with a cut glass voice and a faintly bossy manner, just as BMW had to re-issue its German in car navigation system with a man’s voice because German drivers won’t take orders from a woman, even a virtual one (another gem from the Radio 4 programme).
And they say national differences are breaking down in the new Europe.