Gordon Griffin has narrated over 900 audiobooks and in 2017 received an MBE from Queen Elizabeth for his services to audiobooks. He tells us about that experience, how the industry has changed over the years, how he prepares for each audiobook, and what the secret is to being a truly good narrator.
Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell
Billy Elliot by Melvin Burgess
The New Woman by Charity Norman
The Final Testimony of Raphael Ignatius Phoenix by Paul Sussman
For more about Gordon Griffin's work and workshops, visit www.gordongriffin.com.
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Annie Aldington has voiced hundreds of audiobooks, and among them are some of the most popular titles in the Listening Books collection, including novels by Dilly Court, Martina Cole, Katie Price, Aoife Walsh, and Kitty Neale. Here Annie tells us how she happened into audiobook narration, shares her secret tricks for conquering difficult accents, and reveals just how much fun peripheral characters can be.
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Clinical psychologist and author Dr Julie Smith joins Jess to share some of the practical wisdom from her bestselling book Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before?
Want to know one of the most versatile tools to have in your mental health tool kit? Do you ever wish you could summon motivation when you need it most? Julie warns us of the pitfalls of chasing self-esteem and the rewards of living your life in line with who you want to be.
You can find more of Julie's content on social media and on her website.
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Author Jonathan Whitelaw joins Jess for a cosy chat about cosy crime. He tells us how he landed such a fantastic narrator in Sid Sagar, how he approached character development in The Bingo Hall Detectives, why he chose the Lake District for the setting, and what we should be reading while we wait for his next book, The Village Hall Vendetta.
The Bingo Hall Detectives and The Village Hall Vendetta by Jonathan Whitelaw
Rivers of London: Amongst Our Weapons by Ben Aaronovitch
A Spoonful of Murder by J.M. Hall
Her Majesty the Queen Investigates (series) by S.J. Bennett
The Marlow Murder Club and Death Comes to Marlow by Robert Thorogood
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Author Florence Wilkinson talks about her book Wild City: Encounters with Urban Wildlife, giving lots of suggestions for noticing and encouraging the wildlife right on our doorstep.
Books and Apps Mentioned
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Jess is joined by colleagues Amy and Lieve to talk about notable books adapted to film—for better and for worse! Of course, this is all just a warm-up for the true highlight, which is of course our Very Serious Literary Game. Will Amy triumph against her new opponent, or will Lieve take down the reigning champion?
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Emilie Pine, author of the personal essay collection Notes to Self and her recently published novel Ruth and Pen, tells us what it was like to narrate her emotionally difficult first book, what factored into the casting of Ruth and Pen’s audiobook narrator, and the sometimes surprising responses she’s received from readers. There is also wisdom here for the aspiring writer, or anyone attempting something that feels too enormous to begin.
Mentioned in this episode:
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Natasha Lipman writes about what it means to live, and live well, with chronic illness. Here she talks to Jessica about the strategies she’s adopted to return her to the pleasures of reading.
The Kites by Romain Gary
The Paddington Series by Michael Bond, read by Stephen Fry
The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins
The Escape Artist by Jonathan Freedland
To subscribe to Natasha’s newsletter and to participate in online bibliotherapy on the 15th November, head to https://natashalipman.substack.com/
Coming Soon!Click here to read the transcript
Gail Pirkis and Hazel Wood are founding editors of Slightly Foxed, the quarterly magazine and independent publishing house. As specialists in books that have stood the test of time even while falling out of fashion, Gail and Hazel bring us titles so good, they deserve to be heard as audiobooks, too.
Books and Authors Recommended
My Grandmothers and I, Diana Holman-Hunt
A Boy at the Hogarth Press, Richard Kennedy
The Empress of Ireland, Christopher Robbins
Natural History & the English Countryside
Adrian Bell Trilogy: Corduroy, Silver Ley, The Cherry Tree
James Rebanks: English Pastoral, A Shepherd’s Life
Lark Rise to Candleford Trilogy, Flora Thompson: Lark Rise, Over to Candleford, Candleford Green
The Brensham Trilogy, John Moore: Portrait of Elmbury, Brensham Village, The Blue Field
BB (Denys Watchkins-Pitchford): The Little Grey Men, Down the Bright Stream
Ronald Welch’s novels
Rosemary Sutcliff’s Roman and post-Roman novels*
Memoirs & Diaries
Blue Remembered Hills, Rosemary Sutcliff
A Late Beginner, Priscilla Napier
A Sort of Life, Graham Green
Roald Dahl: Boy, Going Solo
The House of Elric, Gavin Maxwell
Giving Up the Ghost, Hilary Mantel
Conundrum, Jan Morris
Nella Last’s War, Nella Last
Richard Crompton’s Just William series, read by Martin Jarvis
Anthony Trollope: The Barsetshire Chronicles, The Pallisers, read by *Timothy West
Will She Do, Eileen Atkins, read by the author
In My Mind’s Eye: A Thought Diary, Jan Morris, read by Phyllida Nash
A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
For more information about Slightly Foxed, visit foxedquarterly.com.
Jessica: [Speaking to podcast listeners] This is the Listening Books podcast, for every kind of reader and especially for fans of audiobooks. I’m Jessica Stone and to kick off this new series I’ve got not one but two special guests. Gail Pirkis and Hazel Wood are the founding editors of the quarterly magazine and publishing house Slightly Foxed. Because they specialise in voices that have been forgotten or overlooked, I wanted to hear which books they’d most like to revive as audiobooks and why.
[To Gail and Hazel] Welcome and thank you both for joining me here today. The two of you, as I understand it, founded Slightly Foxed, and I wondered if you could start off just by telling me a bit about how that all began.
Gail: Yes, of course. Hazel and I worked together for probably about seven years at an independent publishers called John Murray in London, and in 2002 the family who had run the company for over 200 years sold out to Hodder Headline and the style of publishing changed. Neither of us really felt that we were in tune with, sort of, corporate publishing, so we both left. But of course, Hazel’s been a publishing and been a literary journalist for a long time and I’d always been an editor so, you know, we wanted to do something else. So together with somebody called Steph Allen, who was the publicity manager at Murray’s, the three of us spent quite a long time talking about what we might do next and we mooted the idea of a bookshop, a publishing house and then actually had the idea for the magazine and… This was back in 2002, it was when Waterstones was selling books, you know, three for the price of two and celebrity memoirs were a big thing, and publishing at that time was very much about the latest, the newest, the, you know, shiniest books, and I think we all felt that an awful lot of wonderful books were being overlooked, I mean basically the backlist.
So we had the idea of starting the magazine and we wanted it to be something personal, not literary criticism but people sharing enthusiasms for books, and we did an awful lot of sitting around the kitchen table, usually with a bottle of wine, you know, talking about all sorts of ideas: format, title, typefaces, et cetera. I got in touch with some printers in Yorkshire and got them to make us a dummy of how we envisaged it. Then I did a business plan to raise money to fund all this and come November 2003 we had the money in the bank and I rang Hazel up and I said, you know, we’ve got the money and we’ve set up the company and we’d better start commissioning the first issue, which was due to come out in March 2004. Do you remember, Hazel, the sort of sudden panic when we realised that we actually had to produce something?
Hazel: I do, because we’d spent a lot of time sitting around in Gail’s children’s old playroom, you know, chewing all these ideas over, and being confronted with the idea of an actual physical magazine that we had to produce was really quite alarming actually. And of course we didn’t have a name initially, we couldn’t think what to call it.
Gail: No, we had a very long list of possibilities, didn’t we?
Hazel: Yes, there was a long list of possibilities.
Gail: It was a contributor, Frances Wood, she was a curator of the Chinese books at the British Library and she’s got a wonderful sense of humour and is a very good, sort of, lateral thinker. She said ‘Why don’t you call it 'Slightly Foxed?’, which is an antiquarian term for brown spots on old paper in books, but we also felt it reflected people’s attitude of mind when they went to Waterstones and couldn’t decide what to read; you know, basically you’re slightly foxed. So that’s what we called it, despite one investor saying, ‘Oh, but they’ll think it’s about foxhunting’! Every time we came back to it, it just made us laugh, so we thought let’s go with it.
Hazel: They often ask you to repeat it, I have to say.
Gail: Yes, yes, that’s true! [Hazel and Jessica chuckle] So yeah, so we put the first issue together, um with contributions from… I mean, obviously having both been in publishing and, as I say, Hazel was a literary journalist, we had a lot of people we could call on to write. In late February, the printers’ van turned up at my back door with 2,500 copies of a magazine and a bottle of champagne to help us celebrate the launch. The first week – Steph had done quite a lot of publicity and I got a call from Radio 4, the Today programme, saying it was National Book Week and they wanted to run a piece on a contrast between, sort of, a huge publisher and a very small publisher, so a David-and-Goliath-type thing, and would I like to go on the Today programme?
I have to admit that I’d never actually listened to the Today programme and had no idea what I was letting myself in for but… Anyhow, we were featured on that and I left my husband in charge of the phones that day and the phone did not stop ringing all day. I mean, by the time I got home he said, ‘I haven’t been able to go to the loo, I haven’t had any lunch, I’m…’, you know, it was an astonishing first reaction from people. That was the beginning of it really and now we have 9,000 subscribers and we go to about 80 different countries and we do book publishing and we’ve had a second-hand bookshop for a while and we produce mugs and bookcases and bookmarks and postcards and, you know, it’s grown basically. It was literally the three of us and the dog when we started and we’re just about to publish issue 75, so… Yeah, it’s been a rollercoaster, hasn’t it Hazel?
Hazel: Yes, I mean, I think one of the things that, sort of, distinguished it from the beginning was that we didn’t really just want it to just be the usual suspects, you know, that you see writing in all the sort of book pages, literary journals. We sort of canvassed our friends, you know, anybody we thought might be able to write and as a result, well, it’s very, sort of, democratic in a sense, that we have people writing from all kinds of different backgrounds, not just journalism and publishing and the, sort of, literary world, which I think perhaps gives it its very personal and down-to-earth sort of flavour, which I think is what people enjoy probably.
Gail: And we try not to be too literary. I mean we obviously have had articles on lots of the classics but equally, you know, we’ll have things on children’s books or on, you know, all sorts of non-fiction: recipe books, book illustrators, I mean it’ll be very, sort of, wide-ranging. We've had a piece on Georgette Heyer, for example, because people who love reading, you know, they like the light stuff as well as well as the serious stuff. [Jessica: Hmm] So every issue has about 16 or 17 articles in it and, you know, there might be something – coming in for Christmas we’ve got an article coming in on Elizabeth Gaskell’s 'Cranford' but we’ve also got a piece on 'The Prisoner of Zenda' and something on Shirley Hughes’s children’s books, and indeed an Enid Blyton for the first time, which is rather extraordinary.
Hazel: I think the nice thing perhaps that does keep it, sort of, fresh is that on a normal books page you’re looking for people to write about particular books, whereas people come to us and suggest books that they want to write about. So you’re guaranteed from the beginning that they’re going to make a good case for the book, and we don’t pretend to be impartial at all! You know, it’s very personal and very partial. I mean, not without judgement but at the same time, you know, it has a sort of fresh, personal approach that I think is another thing that people enjoy. And we enjoy it too because everything comes to us fresh, you know, we haven’t even seen it before. So, that’s how we operate.
Jessica: I mean, you’ve sold it to me. I’m ready to sign up! [Laughter]
Hazel: Well, we did have a lot of correspondence during lockdown, didn’t we Gail, saying, ‘You’ve saved our lives really’? You know, during that period when everybody was absolutely shut in, I think it was a great help to a lot of people.
Gail: Yes, I think… Well, I mean, books are an enormous consolation, aren’t they? And we do feel that humour is important, you know, that books should certainly be taken seriously but also not too reverently, they… Which is why we can have pieces on what I would call a very lightweight book but if it’s fun… And it’s surprising how many people choose books that they go back to and, you know, they’re not necessarily the literary classics but there’s something about them that they have a connection with. We have great fun choosing the illustrations as well. We include a lot of wood engravings but also a lot of other images, often from the books themselves and we commission the covers from contemporary artists. We’ve had an enormous range of – well, including people like Quentin Blake have done some wonderful covers for us. So, yeah, it’s 96 pages of joy basically. Certainly it’s a joy to produce. I mean we have a lot of fun with it, don’t we Hazel?
Hazel: We do. It’s pure pleasure really! Certainly the nicest job I’ve ever had!
Jessica: It sounds like a lot of labour and love goes into every issue.
Hazel: It does actually, and a lot of love comes back as well, doesn’t it Gail?
Gail: Yeah, yeah.
Hazel: We get a tremendous amount of correspondence, you know, from people…
Hazel: …saying what they think about things and…
Gail: We get presents as well. We’ve been given marmalade and chutney and cakes and chocolate and biscuits, and we’ve had actually people send in donations to buy the office dogs biscuits or [Jessica: Ah!]… One lovely lady gave us £100 one year so we could have Christmas drinks…
Hazel: It’s just very touching really, you know, one feels one hardly deserves it though, they’re so kind and nice.
Jessica: That’s so lovely! Was it always the plan to eventually start publishing books as well or did that evolve once the quarterly had met with a lot of success?
Gail: No it wasn’t, it wasn’t…
Hazel: I think it was Gail’s plan, wasn’t it really Gail? I think secretly…
Gail: Well, no, honestly it wasn’t. No, no, no, but at the same time, if you’re a publisher you can’t help yourself!
Hazel: I always thought you had it at the back of your mind.
Gail: Maybe, maybe. But our printers, who are based up in Yorkshire, are craftsmen printers, so as well as printing offset litho they also are binders and they are hand binders, which is very rare to find these days, most binding is mechanised. So I discovered that they do clothbound books done by hand and gold-blocked on the spine with a head and tail band and a silk ribbon and in a lovely little format, pocket-sized format, and Hazel had the idea of reissuing memoirs because so many of them had fallen out of print, some really, you know, classic ones. So I think in 2008 we started on – the first one we did was Rosemary Sutcliff’s memoir 'Blue Remembered Hills', which is about her childhood growing up in North Devon.
She’d been crippled by juvenile arthritis and was permanently disabled, and really the story is about the first 18 years of her life and how she came to write her first book, which of course was the beginning of, you know, all her wonderful historical novels for children. We print 2,000 copies of these memoirs and we do one each quarter, at the same time as the issue comes out, so we’ve got a very long – I mean we’ve now done over 60 of them and many of them would make wonderful audiobooks but I don’t think very many of them are available as audiobooks, which is a pity.
Jessica: Well, you’ve just provided the perfect little segue to get into the meat of our conversation today, thank you for that Gail! I did think that given your expertise in finding the books that are maybe underappreciated now and finding a new audience for them that it would be great to get your input on what books deserve to be brought back into the spotlight in audio form. So I’ve asked you both to bring a few titles to today’s conversation about what you think deserves that spotlight.
Gail: We were talking about this earlier because, as I say, we’ve done over 60 books so it’s quite a range, but I think probably we’re – both of us, there are three separate categories that we’re particularly fond of. The first is books that are amusing or downright funny actually, and we’ve done quite a few of those. Unfortunately, really funny books are thin on the ground. It’s much harder to write something entertaining than it is to write something that’s, you know, deeply literary and serious. But the second book that we did, which definitely is laugh out loud is called 'My Grandmothers and I' and it’s by Diana Holman-Hunt, who was the granddaughter of the pre-Raphaelite painter Holman-Hunt.
Her mother bolted and was never seen again and her father worked abroad, so for most of her childhood she was ferried back and forth between the Holman-Hunt widow, who lived in a very gaunt, tall dark house in Kensington, full of pre-Raphaelite paintings, and the other grandmother who lived in considerable comfort down in the Sussex countryside. The grandmothers were radically different in character that – the Sussex one, you know, loved food, loved comfort, loved clothes, loved a well-run household, and the Kensington grandmother lived for Art with a capital A. She had a scullery maid who lived in the basement who produced meals out of scrag end and totally inedible food and the kitchen was full of cockroaches. Every night when the grandmother went to bed she set up this extraordinary sort of homemade burglar alarm at the bottom of the stairs, basically of, sort of, pans and chains and things that would make a terrific noise if somebody came up the stairs to steal all this art that she was sitting on.
Diana captures these two women pitch perfect and they were really not interested in her at all, I mean, she was sort of an appendage, but she had a very sharp eye. There was one instant where she goes with her grandmother, the Holman-Hunt grandmother, to St Paul’s, which is I think where Holman-Hunt is buried. And, you know, she’s dressed in black and she’s got a very beaky nose and iron-grey hair scraped back, a commanding figure, and she proceeds to lecture the tourists who are going round the tombs, by Holman-Hunt’s tomb, on the subject of art. Diana just paints a portrait of this scene, which just makes you roar with laughter really.
Jessica: Yeah, there’s something about the audio format that is particularly good for humour I think, and it takes a particular skill from the narrator as well, for whoever’s voicing a book like that, to understand the humour behind it and…
Hazel: Yes, I agree.
Jessica:…of course delivery is such an important part of humour.
Gail: Yes. Yeah.
Jessica: So it really does, sort of, call on the skills of the narrator in a very particular way.
Hazel: Yes, no, I agree, I think humour comes across terribly well. Another favourite of ours is a book called 'A Boy at the Hogarth Press' by Richard Kennedy, who as a young man got himself a job, or was got a job by his influential uncle, at the Hogarth Press with Virginia Woolf and Leonard. It’s a bit of a cheat because he wrote it quite a long time afterwards but it appears as a kind of diary, a day-to-day diary of this, you know, hopeless – I think he was almost a teenager, wasn’t he, bumbling about but rather sharply observing what was going on: Virginia, sort of, agonising in a room with a long cigarette holder and Leonard, who, you know, didn’t suffer fools gladly. He was always trying to help; putting up a shelf, which gradually descended when Leonard was talking to some rather important person, and so on! [Jessica chuckles] It’s just sort of gently funny. It’s an amazing book I think! Naturally he got the sack in the end. But that’s one of our favourites too…
Hazel:…which I think probably would come across very well, you know, as a read book.
Jessica: That sounds delightful.
Gail: There’s also that wonderful book 'The Empress of Ireland' by Christopher Robbins, which is an account of his friendship with an Irish filmmaker called Brian Desmond Hurst, who was a terrible old queen. In fact the title comes from Brian in his 80s is in a pub in London, the pub to which he goes for breakfast every morning and his breakfast is basically champagne and orange juice and he takes in an orange and the barman cuts it and squeezes the orange, pours him the champagne. There are two builders in there when he comes in one day and they’re obviously muttering about the fact that he’s a terrible old queen and he turns to them with his glass in his hand and says ‘I’m not a queen, I’m the Empress of Ireland’! [Jessica chuckles].
He had a mad scheme for doing a grand epic film on the events leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ and he employs Christopher, who’s down and out and definitely on his uppers, as a scriptwriter. As the book evolves they go to Morocco to check out locations and they go and see people who might back the film and of course it never happens, but it is very, very entertaining. So yeah, the funny ones we are very fond of, and then we’re also very fond of books which involve quite a lot of natural history, and the English countryside I suppose.
There’s a wonderful account by Adrian Bell called 'Corduroy', which is the first in a trilogy. When he’s about 20, in 1920, he doesn’t want to go to university or into the City, he decides to become an apprentice to a farmer in Suffolk and Corduroy is an account of his first year. So it’s farming when it was still only partially mechanised and still mixed farms, and it’s a wonderful record of, you know, how things – the seasons, what happened when, the skills involved, the people involved, the social life in the area. Anybody who enjoys the countryside and traditional agriculture, it’s just a fantastic account.
Jessica: What sort of voice do you think would be ideal for that kind of book?
Gail: Well, an educated voice because he went to a public school. I mean, he actually was a poet and he wrote novels as well. He was very, very gifted but he had that rare combination… I suppose other examples of people who could combine that, I mean Henry Williamson was one, but who had a poetic eye but at the same time a deep knowledge of what they were observing. [Jessica: Hm.] It would be an interesting one to cast, yes, I don’t know who I’d suggest for that. Then one of Hazel’s favourites, in the same vein, is Flora Thompson,'Lark Rise to Candleford', isn’t it Hazel?
Hazel: Yes. I re-read them recently and, you know, some books you feel quite anxious about re-reading again after a long time in case they just don’t have the sort of enchantment that they had the first time round, but re-reading 'Lark Rise to Candleford' and the sequels, which are called 'Candleford' [sic] and 'Over to Candleford' I think, aren’t they? You know, the story of this amazing – well, it’s very lightly disguised autobiography, I expect a lot of people will know it already, but an account of growing up in this remote village and sort of educating herself in a way by going to work in the post office in the local little, sort of, village near the town. It’s a picture of a whole rural society really and it’s so beautifully written by somebody who had the most basic education. It’s economical, it’s poetical, it’s, you know, full of heart.
Gail: Another trilogy in the same vein is by a man called John Moore, who was brought up in a village outside Tewkesbury and he wrote, first of all, 'Portrait of Elmbury', which is actually Tewkesbury, and this is in the lead up to the First World War, and that’s a minutely observed portrait of the social life of a market town. Then the sequel, 'Brensham Village', he moves outside Tewkesbury and it’s a portrait I suppose of an amalgam of villages and by this stage he’s a prep school boy and, you know, they go bird-nesting and they go fishing and they get up very close to nature basically. Then the third volume is called 'The Blue Field' and, again, that’s about one particular man. He’s a sort of wild character who has innumerable children and wives and claims to be a descendant of Shakespeare and disregards authority and brews the most extraordinary array of homemade wines, and is just a, sort of, larger-than-life Shakespearean character.
The three of them, the three books together map the changes that happened in, sort of, English rural life from before the First World War to just after the Second World War and you get weekenders moving in and you get developers who want to build housing estates, and the cinema arrives and petrol station arrives and, you know, gradually the old customs begin to die away and life changes and not necessarily for the better, it has to be said. But they’re absolutely enchanting, they’re timeless classics I think and would bear recording as audiobooks. There are so many characters in them for starters; I mean it would be such fun to do.
Jessica: What was the name of the trilogy again?
Gail: It’s the Brensham trilogy by John Moore and the first book is called 'Portrait of Elmbury' and then it’s followed by 'Brensham Village' and 'The Blue Field'.
Jessica: Thank you, brilliant.
Hazel: I was just going to actually mention, talking about nature and nature writing, a children’s book [Jessica: Hm.] or two children’s books that we produced, 'The Little Grey Men' and 'Down the Bright Stream'. I don’t know whether you know of them but…
Jessica: I don’t, no.
Hazel:…they’re by someone who called himself BB. Can’t remember what his name really was.
Gail: Denys Pitchford-Watkins [sic].
Hazel: Watkins-Pitchford is it, or Pitchford-Watkins? Anyway, they’re the stories of the last gnomes in England, and there’s nothing airy-fairy or fancy about these gnomes, they’re, sort of, absolutely down to earth. They’re really, sort of, quest stories. One of them disappears and gets lost and the others search for him down the river, and I just remember actually as a child being so enchanted by these books, they just drew you in, and reading them again, they’re quite marvellous actually. If they’re not available I do think that children actually still enjoy, you know, description of that kind, but also adventure as well.
Jessica: Yeah. Yeah. Those sound delightful and I want to get my hands on the printed book, or books I should say, as it sounds like I would be charmed by them even as an adult, and I’ve got loads of small nephews and nieces who would enjoy them!
Hazel: Yes, well they are charming as an adult.
Gail: When we started doing the memoirs, which are called Slightly Foxed Editions, and then about six or seven years ago we started a children’s series and they’re in a much larger format and they’re called Slightly Foxed Cubs, obviously. The first ones we did were books by a man called Ronald Welch, who wrote a series from the Crusades through to the First World War about the same family and a member of the family appears in all the significant episodes of English history. So the first one is a Crusader and meets Saladin in the Middle East and then he comes back to England and establishes what becomes the Carey family home in Wales. Then another one features in the Wars of the Roses and Elizabethan period, the civil war and all the way through to the First World War, and they’re fantastic historical records, but also absolutely gripping for boys in particular from the ages of, you know, 8 to 13; find them completely gripping.
And by the same token Rosemary Sutcliff’s Roman and post-Roman novels, we’ve reissued eight of those starting with 'The Eagle of the Ninth' and they are fantastic books and we’ve reissued them with the original illustrations. She manages to draw you into these characters, but also to understand what life was like and what was happening at the time. So it’s a very painless history lesson basically. But they are completely gripping, aren’t they Hazel?
Hazel: They are extraordinary. I read them during one of the lockdowns and I just lay on the sofa and read them one after the other and it sort of reminded me of how you tend to read as a child without [Gail: Hm.] lots of outside distractions. They are brilliant I think because they do have an appeal for adults [Jessica: Hm] as well as children, those Rosemary Sutcliff books.
Gail: Yeah, yeah.
Hazel: And they’re so accurate but also imaginative at the same time.
Gail: Going back to the memoirs, I think as far as, you know, from the perspective of Listening Books, what’s particularly engaging with a lot of the memoirs that we have reissued is that they draw you into a different world and they draw you very often into the mind of a child. There’s a wonderful book called 'A Late Beginner' by Priscilla Napier, which was recommended to us by Penelope Lively. It’s an account of this girl who, her parents live in Egypt and she grows up in Egypt before and during the First World War and it is absolutely an evocation of what it’s like to see the world through a child’s eye. It’s an incredibly good book and underrated and really deserves to be more widely known, even though obviously life in Egypt before the First World War is a long time ago and you would think that, you know, one wouldn’t be able to relate to it. But she has that ability to show how a child’s mind works in all sorts of different circumstances and… It’s a lovely book and we’ve kept it in print. When the original edition sold out we also did a Plain Foxed edition, so the ones that have been particularly popular we’ve reissued, and it just goes on selling, and I think that would make a lovely audiobook.
Jessica: You know, listening to you talk about these extraordinary books, most of them anyway I haven’t encountered or heard of before, and I’m sort of deeply aware of how even as someone who reads a lot relatively speaking, that what I read is very much dictated by what’s being promoted and talked about and what’s, sort of, part of the zeitgeist at the moment. I would love to be a reader who reads more books that are, sort of, off [Gail: Mhm.] the beaten track that way and I’m wondering if you have any advice for people, how to seek those out that are – rather than be at the mercy of just stumbling across something randomly. Are there ways to seek out books like that?
Gail: Yes, you subscribe to Slightly Foxed!
Gail: Because, I mean, that’s what every issue… No, I mean it’s true, that’s our purpose. Every issue has 16 or 17 articles on books that have kind of slipped from the public view, they’re on publishers’ backlists or sometimes they’re not even in print anymore, and these are books that people who write about them believe are still worth reading.
Hazel: I mean, I know what you’re saying because, you know, you can feel completely at sea, can’t you, when you’re looking for something to read? And, of course, we’re the sort of filter in a way! We do read an awful lot of memoirs and I suppose you could say that most of them actually we don’t reissue, but, you know, [Gail: Hm.] it’s just finding those rather special books that have their own voice. [Jessica: Hm.] I suppose particularly in relation to what you do, you know, memoirs of course do have their own voice if they’re any good so they’re tremendously rewarding to read aloud [Jessica: Hm.] or have read aloud I think. You know, that particular genre, it’s sort of almost [chuckling] readymade you might say for…
Hazel:…reading aloud because it’s got its own voice and it doesn’t need interpreting in a way. [Jessica: Hm.] Of course, it does but you know how as a narrator of somebody else’s story it’s more complicated somehow.
Hazel: So yes, so we do try to filter the goodies!
Jessica: I’ll also just plug your podcast briefly while we’re at it because I listened to a couple of episodes recently and came across authors… Well, one of them we actually had read before, the Patrick Leigh Fermor, we’d read some of his books when we were going to Greece. Those are great reads. But I also really enjoyed the Barbara Pym episode, which made me want to read her and a host of other of her contemporaries as well. But there was something that struck me in that episode that I wanted to ask you about. When it came to the part of her story where her publisher basically said ‘We’re dropping you’ because the way she wrote no longer fit into the publishing trends of the 60s, it made me wonder, do you see particular trends now that are leaving out some really worthy kinds of writing?
Gail: I think publishing at the moment is going through a bit of a revolution rather than evolution and I think that quite recently some very senior editors have been let go, in other words made redundant, [Jessica: Hm.] and there are a lot of young editors who are commissioning books from social media influencers, bloggers and so on and so forth who don’t necessarily write well. But, you know, it’s a fashion thing really and publishing always goes in fits and starts following whatever is the latest trend. And often an awful lot of dross comes out of it, as well as some good things, and the earlier stuff gets forgotten. Then what normally happens is people like us leave and set up a new publishing house to, sort of, go back to basics to do, you know – and not be led by sales and marketing but to be led by editorial quality basically.
So I think, you know, these things come and go and everything comes round again. But I do think at the moment that, I mean particularly on the publicity for new books, the publicity machines are so efficient and the sort of hype involved in marketing, you know, it’s often hugely overblown. I mean, I’ve read, picked up a book, you know, international bestseller, top selling, you know, best book I’ve ever read, et cetera and you read it and you think, well really? So, you know, I mean there’s obviously room for both and obviously over time the dross gets sifted out and the good stuff eventually does survive and at some point or other it gets reissued by people like us, but it’s just a sort of natural cycle really.
You know, a tragedy for someone like Barbara Pym and it’s, you know, not uncommon that sort of… I mean writers, novelists in particular, you know, unless they’ve got an editor who really fights their corner, if the book doesn’t sell large quantities then they get dropped, which particularly for a fiction writer who needs – you know, they get better usually with age and with more experience the more you write, the better you get at it if you’ve got that innate talent. It’s a tragedy really that publishers won’t stick with them for longer. But then, you know, economics comes into it.
Hazel: Yes, as you say, the publicity machine I think, you know, for the older writers. I’ve come across so many instances of older fiction writers who are writing really well but they’re being published by very small publishers because they just can’t satisfy the demands of the big publishers’ publicity requirements really. [Gail: Hm] I think, you know, the image has almost come before the work now, hasn’t it?
Gail: Yes, if you’re young and attractive and, you know, you have a good cover photograph then…!
Hazel: Yes, and a big following.
Gail: And very often the best writers are neither particularly photogenic and they’re quite shy and retiring. They’re not extrovert performers, you know. I feel sorry for them when they have to go on these tours and, you know, do something which is quite the opposite of what they spend most of their lives doing, which is sitting quietly writing. It’s quite a dichotomy really but…
Jessica: Before we close, was there another category of books that you wanted to touch on that lent themselves well to audiobooks?
Gail: Well, I guess there’s another sort of semi-category amongst things that we’ve reissued and that is memoirs by writers. I mean obviously Rosemary Sutcliff fits that bill but we’ve also reissued Graham Greene’s memoir, which I think goes up to his 20s, and there’s Roald Dahl’s 'Boy' and 'Going Solo'; Gavin Maxwell’s childhood memoir 'The House of Elrig'; Hilary Mantel’s memoir 'Giving up the Ghost', which is her early life. It’s interesting that these books were generally written I suppose after these people had become well known for other things but the way in which they then go back to their childhoods and, you know, you can see the seeds of their future writing careers and how they’ve evolved as writers. And obviously as publishers, you know, we find that fascinating and I think a lot of readers do too.
Hazel: Yes, and I was also just going to mention Jan Morris, her book 'Conundrum', which I suppose you could say is of particular interest now somehow when… I mean, she was one of the first people to have a sexual reassignment operation. It was a very, very brave thing to do at the time but she’s very interesting about it. She says it’s not about sex it’s about soul really and I think, you know, it’s a very profound look at that whole topic, which is so current now really.
Hazel: It just continues, I would have thought, to be relevant really. So that’s another one that I just, sort of, mention.
Hazel: I think diaries also go terribly well, don’t they?
Gail: Yes, yes. Well, we’re reissuing the diaries of a housewife called Nella Last, who started writing a diary before the war for Mass Observation and I think she kept it up for probably about 20 years. In fact Victoria Wood, the comedian, did a wonderful TV adaptation of the diaries in about 2006 I think. But Nella Last, she was 49, she lived up in Barrow-in-Furness in Lancashire, she had two sons and a husband who was a shop fitter and she was basically a domestic drudge. You know, her husband came home and expected a hot cup of tea immediately, you know, wanted his, you know, dinner exactly on time, the house kept spotless. And of course with the advent of war she then – she’s got tremendous energy and tremendous spirit and she throws herself into all sorts of voluntary work: running a canteen for people, clearing up air-raid damage, running a shop raising money for the Red Cross and so on and so forth.
It’s an extraordinary record of a woman blossoming and in fact when the war comes to an end and all this charitable work, sort of, ceases she’s desolate because she’s found an independence outside the home that she hadn’t had before and she now dares to say, you know, boo to her husband and not to follow his every whim. It’s a terrific diary and, my goodness, one would like to have met her, you know, she was clearly a character. [Jessica: Hm.] So the book is called 'Nella Last’s War' and it is an excellent read. I think we’d better stop recommending our own things there! That’s quite enough!
Jessica: [Laughs] No, they all sound like wonderful recommendations. I am aware that for people listening to this podcast because they are particular fans of audiobooks it might have been a little bit cruel of me to settle on a topic that is specifically about books that are not yet available in audio format! So I thought as a consolation I would also ask you to close the show with a bonus recommendation for a book that you’ve enjoyed that is available as an audiobook. Hazel, would you like to start?
Gail: Well, can I jump in first with…?
Gail: You mentioned our podcast but our podcasts are free and you can go onto our website, which is www.foxedquarterly.com and you can sign up for the podcast, it’s completely free. We’ve done 42 so far. Initially it was monthly but we’ve now decided to do it quarterly and it’s about an hour on all sorts of different subjects, and as I say it’s completely free. But my own recommendation, I have two recommendations actually, one is the Richmond Crompton’s Just William books, which were read by Martin Jarvis and they are an absolute joy and he gets the different characters pitch perfect, they’re very entertaining.
The other, which we actually had an article on at the beginning of the year by Daisy Hay, she spent quite a lot of lockdown when she was out walking listening to the audiobooks of Anthony Trollope’s The Barchester Chronicles, which are read by the actor Sam West, all six books, and she absolutely loved it and wrote this fantastic article for us about it. She, this year, has gone onto listen his recordings of Trollope’s Palliser novels and again she’s written another article for us, which is going to come out in the spring issue next year. I haven’t listened to these myself but she says they are just – you get completely absorbed in this extraordinary Victorian world. And Trollope was a great storyteller. So, that’s my bit.
Jessica: Ah, fantastic. Thank you Gail. Hazel, what would you like to recommend?
Hazel: Well, I’m not a listener to audiobooks as such although I was greatly as a child. I listen to an awful lot of radio and I don’t know whether it’s a cheat to mention. I mean I adored hearing Eileen Atkins’s autobiography called 'Will She Do?' about her early life in the theatre. She’s such a marvellous woman and so humorous and talking about her early life dancing in working men’s clubs, which totally ruined her feet because she was made to do tap on her toes actually with block ballet shoes. [Jessica: Oo.] But the whole thing was just a joy and I think she might have read it herself. I don’t know whether your listeners, you know, would have access to listen again or whatever, but that was absolutely wonderful. [Jessica: Hm.] I also very much enjoyed Jan Morris’s – it was called a thought diary I think, called 'In My Mind’s Eye' and I thought that came over terribly well. The third one, which is only something that someone’s recommended to me was 'A Suitable Boy' by Vikram Seth…
Jessica: Oh yeah…
Hazel:…which is enormously long, I mean you could hardly hold it, [Jessica chuckles] so actually listening to it would be great!
Jessica: Yes, that’s ideal!
Hazel: So those are my, sort of, three thoughts, for what they’re worth!
Jessica: That’s brilliant. Thank you both so much, both for your recommendations and for your good company this morning.
Hazel: Ah, well thank you very much; it’s been a great pleasure.
Gail: Well, thank you very much for having us Jess.
Jessica: [To podcast listeners] And thank you for listening. I wonder, what voices would you like to hear brought back to life as audiobooks? Let us know on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You can look for Listening Books or just follow the links in the show notes. For more from Slightly Foxed, head to foxedquarterly.com where you’ll find their magazine, books and wonderful podcast. I’ll be back next month, so now’s a great time to follow or subscribe to this podcast if you haven’t already.
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 www.listening-books.org.uk.
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