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Series 3

Episode Nine: Reading Roundup - Books That Bring Us Joy

Edward, Amy, and Jessica round up the books that have been bringing them joy this year . . . ‘joy’ veering very occasionally into malevolent glee, and Edward and Amy face off in a festive literary quiz. 

The audiobooks (or plays!) bringing Edward joy 

  • Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas 
  • Olive Kitteridge byElizabeth Strout 
  • Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse 

The audiobooks bringing Amy joy 

  • Short Stories by Roald Dahl, especially ‘The Way Up to Heaven’ 
  • Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Pérez 
  • Anything by Caitlin Moran! 
  • The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry
  • Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman 
  • The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick 
  • Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans 
  • The Midnight Library by Matt Haig 
  • A Streetcat Named Bob by James Bowen 

The audiobooks bringing Jessica joy 

  • Light a Penny Candle by Maeve Binchy 
  • Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy 
  • The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange (You can hear Jess’s conversation with David in an earlier episode) 
  • When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr (You can hear Jess’s conversation with narrator Helen Barford in an earlier episode)

Coming Soon!

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Episode Eight: Publisher Cherry Potts & Author Marina Sánchez

"I have to say as an editor, I was very pleased when I saw “flensing”. I thought, “Yes exactly! That’s exactly . . . Hurrah! Yes!"

Publisher Cherry Potts from Arachne Press and indigenous Mexican Latinx author Marina Sánchez talk with Jess about the newly published anthology Where We Find Ourselves: Stories and Poems of Maps and Mapping from UK Writers of the Global Majority.

The poems you hear are Geography Lesson by Marina Sánchez, read by Marina Sánchez and Departure Lounge by Rhiya Pau, read by Farhana Khalique.

Marina recommends the Zapotec poet Irma Pineda, and Cherry recommends Jay Bernard’s debut collection of poetry, Surge.

Coming Soon!

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Episode Seven - Actor Helen Barford


Do you think we'll ever really belong anywhere?

'I suppose not,' said Papa. 'Not the way people belong who have lived in one place all their lives. But we'll belong a little in lots of places, and I think that may be just as good.'

Actor Helen Barford talks with Jessica about Judith Kerr's classic children’s novel When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, which she narrated for Listening Books' Sound Learning production. Helen also shares some good advice for anyone interested in taking up audiobook narration.

Books Helen and her children recommend for the Audiobook Listening Challenge:

  • Beast Quest (series) by Adam Blade
  • Harry Potter (series) by JK Rowling
  • The Secret Seven (series) and The Famous Five (series) by Enid Blyton
  • Julia Donaldson’s books, especially Tyrannosaurus Drip and What the Ladybird Heard
  • Roald Dahl’s books, especially Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG
  • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit

Coming Soon!

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Episode Six - Poet Fiona Bennett and Actor Michael Schaeffer

My reading experience with poetry is that I'm in the presence of some...body and we're in that kind of potentially ... it might be that slightly late night kitchen table moment where you've sort of got through all the news and the stuff and you actually enter into where you really are, and what's going on, and what you really need to talk about.

Poet Fiona Bennett and Actor Michael Schaeffer talk with Jessica about how The Poetry Exchange began, why the poems are introduced as friends, and how the way we encounter poems can shape our experience of them.

Fiona’s recommendations for the Audiobook Listening Challenge

  • Rapture, by Carol Ann Duffy
  • A Sleepwalk on the Severn, by Alice Oswald

Click here to listen to the poem that has been a friend to Jessica

Coming Soon!

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Episode Five - Author David Gange

The kayak gives this incredible perspective on the world, where you are really embedded in the worlds of the species, you're surrounded by other animals, they don't respond to you in the way that they respond to humans on foot because obviously they are so much more skilled in and on the water than you are.

Writer and historian David Gange talks to Jessica about his book The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian’s Journey from Shetland to the Channel, describing his adventures by kayak, his encounters with wildlife, the importance of poets to history, and why he was discouraged from narrating his own audiobook.

David's book recommendations for the Audiobook Listening Challenge

  • Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait by Bathsheba Demuth
  • Braiding Sweet Grass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
  • Fathoms: The World in the Whale by Rebecca Giggs
  • Moder Dy/ Mother Wave by Roseanne Watt


The Frayed Atlantic Edge

Coming Soon!

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Episode Four - Author Claire Fuller

It does play huge roles in describing the character and circumstances, but really it’s there because I love food!

Author Claire Fuller talks with Jess about her latest novel, Unsettled Ground, shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction, and her third novel, the simmering, suspenseful Bitter Orange. Claire reflects on the roles music and food play in her story-telling, and she describes how someone who never aspired to be a writer became one nonetheless.

Books Claire Recommends for the Audiobook Listening Challenge:

  • Ian McEwan's Atonement
  • Donna Tartt's The Secret History


Claire’s Playlist for Unsettled Ground

Coming Soon!

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Episode Three - Author Francis Spufford

My other conviction here, is that when you're writing difficult things, you should make them as rich and pleasurable as possible for the reader, that there need to be compensations...

Author Francis Spufford talks about what it's been like to launch his new novel, Light Perpetual, during a pandemic, the many talents and accents required of audiobook narrator Imogen Church, the fondness he holds for his 'unlikable' characters, and why the narrator was especially important for his historical novel Golden Hill. To top it off, he delivers a beautiful reflection on the extraordinariness of our ordinary lives.

Books Francis Recommends for the Audiobook Listening Challenge

Historical Fiction:

  • Antonia Hodgson's Tom Hawkins series, specifically The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins and The Silver Collar
  • Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower, The Beginning of Spring, Innocence, and The Gate of Angels
  • Nonfiction: Oliver Morton's The Moon: A History for the Future


Episode Three - Author Francis Spufford


Author Francis Spufford talks about what it's been like to launch his new novel, Light Perpetual, during a pandemic, the many talents and accents required of audiobook narrator Imogen Church, the fondness he holds for his 'unlikable' characters, and why the narrator was especially important for his historical novel Golden Hill. To top it off, he delivers a beautiful reflection on the extraordinariness of our ordinary lives.



Francis: My other conviction here is that when you’re writing difficult things you should make them as rich and pleasurable as possible for the reader, that there need to be compensations.

[Podcast theme tune]

Jessica: [Speaking to podcast listeners] This is the Listening Books podcast, a show for every kind of reader, but especially for fans of audiobooks. I’m Jessica Stone and today I’m bringing you a conversation with Francis Spufford, author of quite a few books actually but today we’re focusing on his historical novel Golden Hill, set in eighteenth-century Manhattan, and his latest novel Light Perpetual, which begins in London, 1944, with the bombing of a Woolworth’s and follows the hypothetical lives of five fictional children killed in that moment. I found this discussion rather moving, as you’ll soon discover, and I hope you do too.

[Music ends]

[Speaking to Francis] Thank you, Francis, for, um, giving us your time today. Your latest book, Light Perpetual, came out in early February this year. What’s it been like to launch a book during a pandemic?

Francis: Ah, well I’ve had a whole year of pandemic to get used to some of it in, like everybody, so it’s not as if, um, doing everything by Zoom came as much of a shock! Um, the strange and encouraging thing I suppose is that people have read their way through the pandemic and they’ve been remarkably welcoming when new books came along. So although I’ve really missed the direct human presence parts of bringing a book out – it would have been nice to get inside physical bookshops and meet physical readers, who I’m assured have, you know, arms and legs and are solid human beings like me rather than just faces on screens – um, there has still been a sense of real contact and of the book leaving me and heading off out into the world to have adventures in other people’s imaginations.

In a way– because of course that part’s always very mysterious for a writer, you never know what becomes of your book once it’s left your mind and taken up residence in somebody else’s and in some ways I’m kind of getting more bulletins back about people reading the book because everybody is talking to everybody else, um, on screen anyway. So it’s not like it just dropped out into the void, it’s, you know, I can see it in the distance having conversations on its own with people.

Jessica: That’s lovely. I know, um, when I heard about it, it was on Twitter, it was before it was released and there was conversation already happening about it and it was nice to have something to get excited about, um, last year and to look forward to for February. Um, so do you usually enjoy then all the activity that surrounds, uh, a book launch?

Francis: Yes. Uh, I know that not all writers do but I am both a genuinely solitary person who enjoys the, kind of, reclusive aspect of, you know, sitting alone writing a book for years and years, and then the contrasting bit when you get to go out into the world and be gregarious in ways that make up for all that solitude. Um, so on the whole yeah, I like book festivals and I like book shops and I like talking to people, um, and as you’ll discover I’m a motormouth anyway. I’m a solitary motormouth, so I’m good with talking and talking and talking and talking and [Jessica laughs] talking some more about it!

Jessica: Here I was worried I might not have enough good questions!

Francis: I promise I’ll let you get a question in edgeways here and there! [Jessica laughs]

Jessica: Well, one thing that, uh, was funny to me in preparing for this interview was just the last guest we had for the podcast, um, the actor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, who’s an audiobook narrator as well, he was talking about the narrators that he really admires and, um, he was really quite effusive about, um, Imogen Church, who of course is quite a celebrated, uh, narrator. Um, so I was, uh, surprised and pleased to see that actually she narrated Light Perpetual as well. Um, did you have much input when it came to choosing who would narrate the book?

Francis: Um, a little bit, in that her name came up and they sent me a kind of taster clip of her doing the beginning, um, and then there was a, kind of, little bit of backwards and forwards, um, in which I recorded the beginning and sent it to her and then she sent me a recording back again, which was a, kind of, nice feeling actually. Um…

Jessica:  Yeah.

Francis: …I’m a strong believer in the test of good writing being whether it works out loud and I enjoy reading my own work out loud, um, and it was kind of exciting handing it to a professional who could take things that with me were just, kind of, little hints and ideas and then make something of them. And she was really good at doing the, kind of, variety of London voices that [Jessica: Hm.] the book requires, because as you can tell listening to me, I speak rather boring, kind of, southern-English-counties RP English, whereas the book needs to, kind of, run around the, kind of, gamut of London accents over the last 50, 60, 70 years, um, not just, kind of, your generic, kind of Cockney turning into Estuary but something a bit subtler than that, and she was really good at that. Um, and also… 

Jessica: There’s singing and Italian in there as well! [Laughs]

Francis: Yeah, absolutely! No, no, no, I needed somebody as versatile as her, I really did. Um, no, it contains, kind of, chunky quotes from operas who one of the characters is, kind of, helplessly besotted with so that has to happen on the page and it has to happen in your ear as well. Um, and also another of the characters is a songwriter. [Jessica: Mm-hm.] She doesn’t quite break through, she spends most of her life professionally as either a backing singer and then as a music teacher, but being on the inside of her, writing her songs and thinking musically is important to the book. So that also had to happen first on the page and then, kind of, realised by Imogen in people’s ears. So I needed someone who could handle, kind of, the extroverted and the introverted bits of it and I think I was very lucky [laughs] with, you know, who I got and what I ended up with.

Jessica: Do you always listen to the finished production?

Francis: No, I don’t because I suffer from embarrassment [Jessica laughs] at the thought of having committed this thing. Um, I listened to bits here and there and thought, yes, yes, yes, no that’s fine, yes, um, but then I could feel a kind of gathering blush and I, kind of, you know, took off my headphones and stopped, glad that it existed free of me because… I don’t know. I don’t know why it feels so presumptuous, more presumptuous to send a piece of speech hours and hours long into the world than it does to send out a, kind of, printed object but for some reason it does to me. So no, I find it very difficult to listen to the whole [Jessica: Hm.] of my own words read by somebody else.

Jessica: Hmm! Do you ever worry that they won’t notice all that you’re inviting the reader to notice?

Francis: Of course I do but then that’s not an exact science anyway, I mean it– and part of, kind of, the power of writing is that you don’t control what the person at the receiving end is getting from it, and that’s the strength of it too. It means that a good share of what happens between a reader and the story is the reader’s business and comes with, you know, where their imagination is and where their ears are and the way the picture it and the way that they do, you know, half the job of bringing it to life. And as a writer you can, kind of, nudge that, you can have pictures in your own head and hope it’s going there but you can’t control it and you can’t guarantee it. Um, and, you know, it’s not a question of settling for something, it’s a question of being glad at the independent life of your story once it’s left you.

So maybe they don’t get all of the things that I was thinking of but then they get loads of other things that they were thinking of. Um, the frustrating thing being that – except in rare lucky cases where I get to have a conversation with a reader – I don’t find out what those were. Um, so if anyone would ever like to keep a very elaborate diary of [laughing] their reactions to [Jessica laughs] reading my writing and send it to me, I would read it with genuine interest, um…! But, um…

Jessica: That seems like a dangerous invitation, but…! [Laughs]

Francis: No, no, no! I wasn’t completely serious when I said that but I was serious about the idea

Jessica: I mean, I’m buying a new journal right now! [Laughs]

Francis: No, no, no! Really, that’s fine, no.

Jessica: I will say that, um, I was interested to hear about your back and forth about the opening chapter because I found myself needing to read that opening chapter out loud and I was struck by how it forced me to slow down, not because it was difficult but because it was important. Do you– I don’t know if I’m conveying this well. It was an astonishing opening chapter actually, um, and the invitation to ponder, um, the infinite within the finite, um, was really just something that I felt I had to take my time with and feel that. And there was an interesting, um, mix of gravity, um, and lightness as well in that chapter that I found really effective. Um, but…

Francis: Thank you.

Jessica: …that’s not a question, that was my experience of it.

Francis: No, no, no, in fact it’s the kind of conversation I was just expressing the wish for a minute ago [Jessica laughs], so thank you. Um, yeah, I wanted that opening, which, you know, for the vast majority of people who haven’t read this book or haven’t heard this book is about, um, a German missile falling on a branch of Woolworth’s in south London in 1944 in very slow motion. Because, um, the event that starts the book off takes about, you know, a fraction of a second and I wanted the writing to slow down enough to show it and give it the weight, kind of, you know, proportionate to how much of an effect it was going to have on the characters’ lives for the rest of the book. And I wanted to write from a kind of unearthly viewpoint, a sort of something not quite like a human-eye view because we don’t on the whole perceive events that take one ten-thousandth of a second.

Um, so it’s written in very slow motion bomb time and I needed it to, kind of, establish some strangeness after which the familiarity of the rest of the book– because then it’s about the lives of five kids born in about 1940 who grow up and have lives that reflect all of the ways that London has changed and all of the, kind of, different possible destinies for working-class children born in the 1940s. Um, all every kitchen sink except I wanted the kitchen sink to have a background of strangeness, of life seen within a frame of death or time seen within a frame of eternity or something like that. So the beginning was supposed to, kind of, move you to seeing from a different angle, both ideally, yes, light and heavy too. Um, and then to provide a kind of lingering sense that this wasn’t quite the ordinary close-up story of ordinary familiar lives that you usually get.

Um, I have form as a writer who provides obstacles for their readers and hearers at the very beginning. My previous novel, Golden Hill, starts off with an insane sentence that goes on for about a page and a half, which is there as a kind of threshold going, kind of, if you can get over the door into the book, um, then I shall reward you, but I’m warning you right now that it’s going to contain some of this kind of thing. And, um, my family tell me off for always leading with the bad news when I’ve got an anecdote. I always point out the drawbacks of something, even when I’m feeling quite optimistic, so maybe this creeps into the way I write books as well. It does tend to get easier after the first few pages of anything [Jessica laughs] I’ve written!

But my other conviction here is that when you’re writing difficult things you should make them as rich and pleasurable as possible for the reader, that there need to be compensations. [Jessica: Hm.] Not delayed compensations but compensations right now for something you need to concentrate on. So it ought to be rich and it ought to be satisfying and it ought to be a pleasure as well. It ought to be funny and it ought to have sentences whose shape are satisfying in themselves and I do tend to write to be read aloud [Jessica: Hm.], um, to myself, you know, by myself in the first place when I’m producing the sentences, but then part of the way that I want to, kind of, send writing out into the world is as something that will work out loud. I was a very happy reader of bedtime stories for 13 or 14 years until my younger daughter grew out of it and, alas, that kind of era in our lives came to an end. And it’s such a good test for writing, whether it works out loud. So that’s always in my head as a thing I want to make sure I’m getting right. [Jessica: Hmm.]


[Interval music]


Jessica: [To podcast listeners] You’re listening to the Listening Books podcast, and if this conversation is prompting thoughts you’d like to share we’d love to hear from you. You can leave a review on and you can talk to us on social media @ListeningBooks. Links in the show notes. Coming up, Francis Spufford makes me cry but makes up for it with some stellar book recommendations.




[To Francis] Um, you were talking about Golden Hill

Francis: Yeah.


Jessica: …and the way it starts off. Um, it’s set in Manhattan, 1746, uh, when Richard Smith arrives from England with a mysterious bill of exchange, which gets stolen almost immediately, and we’re off into what I think of as just really good old-fashioned storytelling. Um, it’s written in a style that accessibly imitates the eighteenth-century novel, um, and one of the key parts of that is the narrative voice [Francis: Hm.], which tells the story in third person but also addresses the reader directly, which is quite amusing in parts. I promise, I am getting to a question! Um, now, Golden Hill, uh, it holds a number of surprises in store for the reader and I’m hoping not to spoil any of them. I do suspect that one of them is possibly less surprising if listening to the audiobook! Maybe not!


Francis: I know what you’re talking about here. [Jessica laughs] I know how to have to creep up on this question.


Jessica: Do you? Okay.


Francis: Which won’t spoil it any more than it’s already been spoilt for people who have already worked something out because they’re listening to the audiobook.


Jessica: Okay.


Francis: Um, ah, okay. So, um, it’s an eighteenth-century, um, historical novel but, kind of, written as much as I could like an eighteenth-century novel because one of the great things about those very first few decades of the novel is that nobody knew what the rules were yet! So they tended to throw together all sorts of, kind of, pleasures and satisfactions, which later on would scatter out to, kind of, different parts of the fictional sky. So you’d get, you know, love stories mixed in with political intrigues, mixed in with, kind of, ridiculous adventure plots, mixed in with people writing each other long, long subtle psychological letters, mixed in with, kind of, courtroom dramas and everything you could possibly think of all thrown in together into the, kind of, eighteenth-century Magimix, um, and I really liked that.


And one of the other things I really like is that eighteenth-century narrators, though a bit stiff and unsubtle by modern standards, also have this tendency to buttonhole the reader. They like to break the fourth wall. They, you know– In Tom Jones Henry Fielding leans out of the page and goes, ‘Are you worried about where Tom has got to now?’. Um, and in Tristram Shandy, um, Sterne, the author, practically steps out of the page, settles down in your sitting-room and has a cup of tea with you, talking about this and that and only very reluctantly getting back to the story at hand [Jessica laughs] at all.  So, possibilities there I thought, and I thought I could use this as a way to deal with the problem of the fact that I’ve got one protagonist whose mission in New York is a total mystery from the beginning.


So I’ve got to be intimately close to somebody I’m withholding the most important thing about [Jessica: Hm.] from the reader’s point of view. So the book follows him around like a, kind of, um, what’s it called, a steady cam in film, one of those slightly wobbly cameras that hovers somewhere over his left shoulder. Every now and again it lets you know what he’s thinking but on the whole it just lets you, kind of, watch him and listen to him, but we see the world not in his head but very near to his head. But, um, there is a trick to the book, which is that actually it’s not a third-person narrator at all. The person who is producing this, kind of, omnipotent– not omnipotent – omniscient voice? The thing that breaks the fourth wall and leans in is actually somebody within the story and it becomes, if I’ve done it right, more and more obvious who that somebody must be.


And then at the end they confess it’s them because there are things they just don’t know and every now and again, when having to describe a high-stakes card game or a duel or the [Jessica laughs] sex scene they suddenly get a bit perplexed and you can see their fancy footwork as they desperately try to come up with something which will fill the gap. Um, and of course the issue with the audiobook was that, um, if that’s going to work then the person who is narrating the whole book has to correspond in some ways to the person who turns out to be the secret narrator inside the story and, in particular, they have to correspond in gender terms. [Jessica: Hmm.] The book has got to be narrated by a person of the same gender as the one who turns out to be the secret narrator within the story. Is that mysterious enough do you think?


Jessica: I think we’ve done as…


Francis: Because anyone who hasn’t actually listened to it is still going to be mystified…


Jessica: Yes.


Francis: Good, yeah.


Jessica: And also, they might have fun picking up on the clues…


Francis: Yeah.


Jessica: …um, which, because I didn’t know that the narrator would turn out to be a character, wasn’t really paying attention to, um, and…  


Francis: Aha! No, because you don’t…


Jessica: Yeah.


Francis: …until somebody persistently breaks the fourth wall and goes, actually, it’s not just a storyteller here, it’s somebody with a point of view with some deficiencies and things they know about and things they don’t know about, that doesn’t occur to you, which, you know, it’s great. [Jessica: Hmm.] You could hide a possibility in plain sight because until your attention is persistently drawn to it you won’t get it, which is fun to play with.


Jessica: Yes! Well, I was wondering, I mean, was this just a fun extra, uh, bit of playfulness to add to it, a fun surprise, um, or was this integral to your vision of the book, to highlight this character?


Francis: Yes, it was. The second [Jessica: Hm.], it was definitely essential to the book because, um, I wanted to get it so that the book, which appears to have only one protagonist [Jessica: Hm.], um, actually has two. It was a way of ensuring that the second protagonist, who is secretly the narrator, um, gets equal time and an equal share and that in the end it’s not really the story of Mr Smith’s adventures in New York, it’s the story of somebody’s reactions to Mr Smith’s [Jessica: Hm.] adventures in New York. Um, it was quite fiddly to do, um, [Jessica laughs] and I’m hoping it works. Um, also I’m very– I mean, [sighs] this is all a bit coded, I’m sorry, but the person it turns out to be is a very divisive character. [Jessica: Hm.] Some people hate them and some people are very fond of them [Jessica: Hm.], um and they are genuinely a nasty piece of work in some ways. I was tired of the form of narrative in which, you know– you know, one of the staples of romance is people behaving extraordinarily badly to each other and being mean and vicious because they really care deep down.


Jessica: Oh right!


Francis: I thought that’s a cliché and it’s actually much more interesting if you’ve got somebody whose mean streak is actually a mean streak and then have it be a romance all the same in which you [laughing] genuinely got to see whether a couple of people can work their way around the fact that one of them is in some ways a nasty piece of work. [Jessica: Hm.] Um, so, um, I knew that there would be some people who just be enormously irritated and even hate [Jessica laughs] the person who turned out to be the narrator but I don’t, I love them. Note the [Jessica: Hm.] careful pronoun. Um, I really enjoyed being them and I really enjoyed giving them space to be not just a bit, bad tempered but, [laughs] actually [Jessica laughs], you know, genuinely unpleasant!


Jessica: Speaking of, uh, less cuddly characters! [Francis: U-huh.] Um, I believe you’ve got one of those in Light Perpetual as well.


Francis: Oh, I’ve got several of those in Light Perpetual, um, yeah! [Jessica laughs]


Jessica: Well, one in particular I think has stood out when I’ve, sort of, read reactions, uh, to the book or have heard reactions from friends. Um, you’ve mentioned him earlier, Vernon, who is the opera…


Francis: Yeah.


Jessica: …lover. Um, did you enjoy writing that character the way you enjoyed…?


Francis: I’m nodding. I should say that out loud, shouldn’t I? [Jessica laughs] Um, yes I did, um, but then I’d… [Sighs] In some ways Vern, who is a property developer going on con artist, he wants to be rich, he tries repeatedly, he manages it in the end, um, before losing it all again. I mean he is not likeable. Um, as his irritated daughter says to him at the end of his life, ‘Have you ever tried doing business with anyone you didn’t try to rip off?’, um, and the answer to that is no, no, he really doesn’t. Um, but he has this helpless responsiveness to opera, it moves him to tears in a way that he doesn’t fully enjoy or understand but he just can’t help it. [Jessica: Hm.] It’s a flame that he warms his hands by and can’t stop doing it and, yeah, with Vern I wanted to write somebody who, again, was not really very redeemable but who had this kind of secret compartment in which something else was going on. Um, disconcertingly he was my mother-in-law’s favourite character when she was reading the book. She really liked Vern.


Jessica: Really?


Francis: She is a retired academic and also a soprano, so [Jessica: Ah.] she enjoyed the opera stuff and she found his, kind of, grossness and his unapologetic grossness, kind of, satisfying. There’s something both assertive and helpless about Vern and she liked the combination.


Jessica: Yeah.


Francis: And she’s not the only one. I’ve come across other people whose favourite he is, which I thought was pushing it a bit. I didn’t think [Jessica laughs] he’d be anybody’s favourite character! But, but, but, but, I do– I mean, some of the reactions to this book have been, kind of, you know, you’ve avoided your cast being killed by a V-2 at the beginning but they don’t seem very nice, do they? [Jessica laughs] They don’t have very likeable lives. Um, and not in some ways but I love my cast and I was deliberately trying to make the best case for all of them, um, [Jessica: Hm.] and I don’t think whether characters deserve sympathy or are loveable really depends on them being likeable. [Jessica: Hm.] Um, and I didn’t think that their lives were– I mean, some spectacularly awful things happen in one of the five lives I’m following. Um, there’s a murder witnessed from close up, which is very unpleasant to write and I hope it’s very unpleasant to read [Jessica: Hm.] in the nicest possible way dear readers.


Jessica: Yeah.


Francis: Um, but I thought that all of the people in it, kind of, deserved sympathetic attention and I didn’t think it was tilted more towards darkness than the actual mixture of actual people’s lives. It strikes [Jessica: Hm.] me that darkness and light marbled together or mottled together is where we live really, um, and tragedy and comedy mixed together is where we live too and, kind of, hope and disaster is where we live too. I was trying for realism not for darkness and I was trying for love not for disdain. [Jessica: Hm.] None of my characters are people that I wanted to hold at arm’s length or that I wanted the readers to hold at arm’s length, even though getting close to some of them at some moments is going to be uncomfortable.


Jessica: I do think, um, Vern’s helplessness, um, goes a long way towards, um, securing a reader’s sympathy. Um, and there is something so pitiable about someone who on the hand can’t seem to help his reaction to music, to opera, um, but also he can’t seem to help these unsavoury aspects of himself either.


Francis: No.


Jessica: Um, he just is! [Laughs] Um…


Francis: He really just is, um…


Jessica: Yeah.


Francis: Um, yeah, he’s a bully and a conman and, um, and compulsively exploitative in pretty much all his relationships. But meanwhile the, kind of, signals from radio opera are being received and he’s struggling to know what to do with them [Jessica: Hm.] as, you know, some soprano sings about how they have lived for art and never done any harm to anybody, kind of– he weeps in his car as he’s on his way to rip, you know, somebody else off.


Jessica: Yeah! [Laughs] Um, you mentioned, um, the love you have for your whole cast. I wonder, um, did they all come to you in a similar way? Did you come to know them at once? How did you come to know your cast of characters?


Francis: I’m not being cagey here but I’m not sure I can answer that question…


Jessica: Okay.


Francis: …in a meaningful way because there was a kind of visible and conscious, kind of, planning part of it in which I thought, you know, I’ve got these decades of London life to cover, what interesting things have happened in London? What can I show? What unexpected angles can I show it from? What are the kind of things that happen to working-class kids who are born in about 1940? One of them is music and the kind of extraordinary way that, kind of, British popular music, um, and the kind of different ways in which– you know, rock and roll from America and then, kind of, all of the ways in which British music has been changed and changed and enriched and enriched by, kind of, the rhythms of those arriving in the city.


All of that, you– I could plan to have a character who was a musician and I could plan to have a character who was committed to, um, a, kind of, media technology, kind of, the hot metal typesetting on Fleet Street newspapers, which was going to go obsolete halfway through his life. And top down I could go it would be good to have some of that, but then at the same time, bottom up and not so visibly and certainly not so consciously, there was some kind of solidifying process, which felt more like getting to know some people who, kind of, stepped halfway out of the shadows in my head, as if they partly existed already and I just had to patiently let them introduce themselves. And I– you know, I’m blethering about this, I can find…


Jessica: No!


Francis: … fancy ways of saying, ‘I’ve said to be patient’ but the truth is I don’t know. I don’t know. They came along.


Jessica: I wanted to pick up on this, um, you mentioned the Linotype… [Francis: Hm.] You did mention that, didn’t you? [Laughs]


Francis: I did, yeah. Yeah, no, no, Alec the character who…


Jessica: Yeah.


Francis: Clever Alec, literally a smart Alec – although I did not realise that Alec was a smart Alec until I’d finished the book and it was too late [Jessica laughs] or I might have given him a different name – um, who follows his dad into what, in the middle of the twentieth century, is one of the, kind of, great aristocratic working-class occupations, the most highly skilled thing there is, which is printing newspapers on a vast hot metal machine. I can describe it as being like a metal grand piano stood on its end. Um, he is the king of a technology which then vanishes. Yes, go on, sorry.


Jessica: Yes, no, I was just going to, um… It was one of the things that I noticed, um, you must have done very thorough research on, um, how a Linotype machine works, how a V-2 warhead, uh, you know, the physics of that, how that works. Um, the, uh, oh, the pharmaceutical treatment of schizophrenia in the 60s! Um, you know, that’s just a few of the things that I noticed, uh, the detail you were able to bring, um, and not in a, uh, show-offy, look-at-the-research-I’ve-done kind of way. Um, but I guess I’m wondering if there was any of that research that especially surprised you or delighted you or moved you in some way?


Francis: I like knowing about stuff, I really do! I used to be a non-fiction writer and it probably shows, that I still really enjoy, kind of, the contact with detail and with the process of finding out how things work. Which feeds into, kind of, some of my convictions about what novels are supposed to do because I think it’s bizarre that novels on the whole don’t describe people at work when work takes up so much of our lives. Um, it’s as if, you know, novels were only about what people did in the evenings a lot of the time [Jessica laughs], which is weird. Um, so I had a good reason for being able to talk about those things.


But I’m glad it doesn’t feel show-offy because I tried to keep my nerdy pleasure within bounds here but I would go into each section of the book, because it kind of stilt-walks on through the decades in 15-year chunks, so every time I got to a new era I had new things to find out and I’ve had this bizarre shopping list going how does a 1970’s reel-to-reel professional quality tape recorder work? [Jessica laughs] Um, and luckily the world is full of other nerds who will tell you exactly those things. If you form the question he’ll– glad to be asked. Um, what delighted me? Um, [sighs] I liked the reel-to-reel tape recorder very much. I liked the way– and, you know, it’s a book about time so I was always look out for things where human beings were manipulating time one way and another, and musical time turned out to be very, very important.


And I loved discovering that your, kind of, um vast 70’s tape recorder had particular buttons – I’m sorry, this is so nerdy [Jessica laughs] – designed to abolish the otherwise audible minute time delay caused by having the two reels, so that my characters were engaged deep down but where I really enjoyed it, in a kind of little artificial musical thing that was very like writing novels, where you’re engaged in tiny bits of fakery in order to make it seem smooth and natural, um… Um, there were some things I didn’t enjoy finding out about very much. I did not enjoy being a late 1970’s neo-Nazi skinhead for the purposes of the book, um, ugh… Um, but yeah, it had to be done. I’m not sure I could quite explain why it had to be done but it had to be done!


Jessica: Well, the story begins with an unwitnessed moment [Francis: Mm-hm.] and throughout the book I feel invited to witness, to look here, to pay attention to this, really see it. This may be an impossible question to answer. What do you most hope a reader has witnessed by the time they finish the book?


Francis: That’s a good question but I don’t know if I can answer it. Um, uh, you know, close up that this is the recognisable mixture of woe and joy that makes up lives. Um, um, that there’s nothing ordinary [laughing] about ordinariness so long as you look at it properly and close up. There’s nothing ordinary about any of our individual lives to us. And novels are weirdly selective. Novels pick out a tiny spotlight and happen to put them on a very few people when we are surrounded by clouds and crowds and millions of protagonists. There’s nobody who’s not a protagonist and novels artificially will just snip out this one tiny thread of story from this vast unceasing – tapestry sounds too up itself – mat! This vast, unceasing mat of matted threads of all the stories going on at once. So I wanted to tell a story that made you notice that we’re all protagonists.


Um, what else? I wanted there to be– Some of the witnessing the book is doing is trying to be a little bit unearthly, from seeing the bomb in slower time than any human could manage at the beginning to following one of my characters as he dies at the end. I am trying to suggest without having the mad presumption to try to do myself that there are other perspectives possible on human life that aren’t quite just ours and, you know, I won’t go there but there is a religious aspect [Jessica: Hm.] to that. So I could give a theological answer and say that I wanted the book to remind– to get people to witness William Blake’s phrase ‘the love of eternity for the productions of time’, um, but much too fancy.


I also– I wanted people to notice that everything passes, that I wanted people to feel the, kind of, the– [frustrated sigh] No, all right, I don’t care whether I’m up myself here – whether the splendour and the, kind of, pity of our mortality, the way that it all goes, no matter how good or awful it is. I wanted to make you witness five people living in time and see how good and terrible that was.


Jessica: [Voice wavering] That’s a beautiful answer.


Francis: For asking it. [Exhales]


Jessica: I suppose because death has been foregrounded [Francis: Hm.], um, in the past year in a way that it isn’t always, um, for everyone, um, it’s one of those things that’s, sort of, in the background. Anyway, thank you for that beautiful answer. Um, I’m going to shift yours…


Francis: Do, do.


Jessica: …into something a little less deep, a little less profound! [Laughs]


Francis: Okay.


Jessica: And I’m going to seek your recommendations for those who are taking up our Audiobook Listening Challenge. [Francis: Hm.] Um, we’ve got a number of different things I’ve been asking every guest at the end, uh, to help us out with some recommendations. And the ones I chose for you I thought you might be a particularly good [Francis: Hm.] source for. So, um, one of them is to listen to historical fiction set before 1900. Now, obviously Golden Hill is a great example of that. Um, if people have already, um, listened to that do you have any other suggestions?


Francis: Yes, I do. Um, and I’d like– two in fact. I want frivolous but really good frivolous. Um, there is a really excellent series of, um, historical thrillers set in eighteenth-century London by Antonia Hodgkins [sic] with a hero who is a disgraced rake, um, and bookseller of dodgy books, um, who gets used as a kind of Georgian private eye. Um, the one I’d start with is called The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins but the series continues, there’s a new one out called The Silver Collar, which is also excellent and has just, um, won a crime-writing prize. Um, and those are really good. Those are, kind of, fruity and satisfying and full of incident and take you from the gutter to the palace and back again in a very pleasing way.


Um, less frivolously, in fact about as unfrivolous as you can get but still pleasurably, um, I want to point people towards Penelope Fitzgerald, who is one, you know, important to me partly because she started writing novels after she was 60, which is encouraging! Um, but also one of the great, kind of, recent masters of historical fiction as a work of high art: light and delicate and dryly ironic and full of a kind of graceful but tough-minded compassion. And the place to start with Penelope Fitzgerald is her bestseller The Blue Flower, which is set, again, in the eighteenth century, in eighteenth-century Germany, and begins with a scene of extraordinary laundry and then goes on from there. And it gives you the feeling that there is nothing she cannot do, no aspect of human life that she cannot find this, kind of, elegant, light, brilliantly perceptive way of getting into.


And if you liked The Blue Flower then you should rush onwards, um, from eighteenth-century Germany to early twentieth-century Moscow by Penelope Fitzgerald in The Beginning of Spring, um or to, um, 1950’s Italy in Innocence. Um, or, since she clearly liked finding out about things just as much as I do, um, to Edwardian Cambridge and romance among the physicists in a book called The Gate of Angels. And they’re all fabulous. Um, but I’m going to stop recommending with a mighty effort of will here [Jessica laughs], but Penelope Fitzgerald serious, Antonia Hodgkins [sic] not so serious but still a really good writer.


Jessica: Wonderful. [To podcast listeners] I'm going to include all of these recommendations in our show notes, by the way, so listeners, if you’re madly, uh, scrambling for paper and pen to write all these down I'm going to put them in the show notes so you can, uh, refer to those. [To Francis] Um, as someone who’s written quite a lot of non-fiction I think you’re well able to help with this next one [Francis: Mm-hm.] as well. Um, the challenge is simply to listen to a non-fiction book that isn’t a memoir.


Francis: Okay.


Jessica: And feel free to plug your own as well!


Francis: Oh no, that would be cheating but I’m going to cheat slightly because I’m going to suggest something which happens to be by a friend of mine. Um, a book called The Moon by, um, a brilliant science journalist called Oliver Morton, um, which came out for the fiftieth anniversary – is it fiftieth? –yes, the anniversary of the moon landing in 2019. Um, and it’s about that, um, and it’s about the science of the moon as a planet but it’s also about all of the ways in which the moon has, kind of, haunted human imaginations, um, and the way that, you know, no matter what humans have been doing in every civilisation we’ve managed, up there in the sky is this little white waxing and waning disc, which doesn’t alter depending on what we do. And he’s very, very good on the strangeness of that. Um, it’s really, really good non-fiction writing. Um, he loves his science, every now and again you’ll have to concentrate but to make up for it, um, you get to, kind of, get the boots of your spacesuit dusty in the Sea of Tranquillity and to do the moon in poetry and the moon in virtually everything else as well. The Moon, Oliver Morton.


Jessica: Wonderful. Well, um, Francis, I thank you so much for the time and attention you’ve given to this conversation. Those two things I have a renewed appreciation for after reading your book. Um, thank you so much.


Francis: Thank you for having me. You’re welcome.


[Podcast music begins]


Jessica: [To podcast listeners] I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing from Francis as much as I did. Next month I’m excited to share a conversation with Claire Fuller, author of Unsettled Ground, recently shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. If you haven’t already subscribed to the podcast, clicking that button will make sure you get the episode as soon as it’s released.


The Listening Books podcast is produced by Listening Books, a UK charity that provides an audiobook lending service for over 115,000 members who find that an illness, mental health, physical or learning disability affects their ability to read the printed word or hold a book. It’s simple to join. For more information, head to our website


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[End of Transcript]





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Episode Two - Actor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith

I was telling a story, and as an actor, as an artist, that’s the central love.

Actor and audiobook narrator Kobna Holdbrook-Smith talks about what it was like to voice Rivers of London as his very first audiobook, what he had to unlearn to do voice work, how Frank Sinatra inspired his mic technique, and even his first experience of snow. He also offers a heap of recommendations for your reading list.


  • Slough House series by Mick Herron, narrated by Sean Barrett
  • The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak, narrated by Grant Cartwright
  • The Terrible: A Storyteller’s Memoir, by Yrsa Daley-Ward, narrated by the author and Howard Daley-Ward
  • She Would Be King by Weyétu Moore, narrated by the author
  • The Milkman by Anna Burns, narrated by Bríd Brennan
  • Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo, narrated by James Goode
  • Circe by Madeline Miller, narrated by Perdita Weeks
  • The Rosewater books (The Wormwood Trilogy) by Tade Thompson, narrated by Bayo Gbadamosi


  • Anne Carson
  • Roxane Gay
  • Toni Morrison


  • Imogen Church
  • Anna Bentinck
  • Nicole Davis
  • Raj Ghatak
  • Tania Rodrigues
  • Adjoa Andoh
  • Bayo Gbadamosi

Coming Soon

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Episode One - Author Caroline O'Donoghue

I wanted it to look like how it feels like, and how it feels to be Irish sometimes is that you are in a murder mystery.

Caroline O'Donoghue, host of Sentimental Garbage and author of Promising Young Women, Scenes of a Graphic Nature and the forthcoming YA novel All Our Hidden Gifts, tells Jess about playing with different genres, how some endings are too unbelievable to work, the inherent witchiness of being a girl, and how annoying it is for a movie to share your book's title. She also gives some stellar book recommendations for all those taking up this year's Audiobook Listening Challenge.

If you enjoy this episode, consider leaving us a review. You can also find us on Twitter and Instagram @ListeningBooks. We'd love to hear from you.

Coming Soon

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