Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

A Vulpes Random on Voices from the Past

not Orczy, but Coward

not Orczy, but Coward

(It’s such a trite title, but it’s meaningful. Stay with me.) You know how it is: you get caught by an idealistic buying urge, plus a very reasonable sale price, but the CD remains unplayed for way too long. I have been forgetting to play The Spoken Word from the British Library for months, but I’ve finally done it, and I was enthralled (in the original, slave-to-the-iPod sense) all evening. I was practically taking notes: not of the wise and amazing things that Muriel Spark and Evelyn Waugh were saying, but because they were saying them at all, and I needed to tell my friends and colleagues that they needed to hear the subjects of their lives’ work, or simply their favourite authors, speaking forth in normal, human, audible voices, sniffs and coughs and all. So here we go.

Sally: Baroness Orczy is clearly reading aloud graciously from a prepared talk, and with several fat plums in her mouth, but what I really loved in her piece was not so much her private fantasy that the Scarlet Pimpernel leaning lazily against her mantelpiece prevented her from writing stories set in the present day, but that the actor voicing the Pimpernel’s lines actually said ‘demme’. I know how to pronounce it now.

not Wodehouse, but Kipling

not Wodehouse, but Kipling

Ann: P G Wodehouse at 82 was an absolute darling, and could wriggle lazily out of the traps set for him by his ignorant American interviewer by being slightly vague and ever so Britishly dotty, about Bertie, about Jeeves, and about Blandings. He also confirmed for me that that the ‘t’ in ‘valet’ is pronounced. Phew: have never been quite sure about that.

Nathan: I know you will enjoy hearing the slow but obvious build-up by Aldous Huxley’s interviewer to the mescalin question, and his incomprehension of why anyone would actually choose to live in Los Angeles.

not Tolkien, but Golding

not Tolkien, but Golding

Holly: you will undoubtedly be enraged by the aggressive questioning of Tolkien’s interviewer, in his clipped cleverer-than-thou Oxford accent, but keep listening, and be gently charmed by his complete understanding of the Third, Second and First Ages, and be guided by the fact that Tolkien took his questions seriously, especially the one about why there is no god/God in The Lord of the Rings (there is, apparently), and whether the Valar are angels or saints.

Simon: I loved hearing Virginia Woolf talk about craftsmanship and words (but I still don’t much like her fiction). Hearing her voice is extraordinary: I can imagine the famous semen conversation between her and Vanessa and Strachey so much more clearly now.

Patrick: listen to Arthur Conan Doyle for a fine, rugged, Victorian Edinburgh accent without any of the niminy-piminy Morningside nonsense that taints it now. If that’s the voice that brought forth Sherlock Holmes, Cumberbatch needs to reconsider his interpretation, and to get in a bit more of the mind that believed in speaking to the dead.

Erica: listen to J B Priestley hating the very idea of discussing middlebrow in a critical sense! It’s also so nice to hear the pleasure in his voice when talking about The Good Companions, clearly a book he really liked writing.

not Fleming, but Mitford

not Fleming, but Mitford

Emma: you’d enjoy hearing Ian Fleming on how he doesn’t really think Bond has much in common with his own life, while smugly implying that he does. It’s a master-class in arrogance. As is Fleming’s bemusement at being considered a sadistic writer: he thinks Buchan’s gentlemanly thrillers were old hat. Pah.

This is such a great collection: listening to these CDs is like being in the audience for English literature’s greatest ever talk show. And such a good source for fantasy dinner-party invitation list-making: I’d have Nancy Mitford (the only interviewee who laughed), William Golding (who sounds like he really wanted to have the conversation), Noel Coward (such diction! such delicious repartee) and Rudyard Kipling (because anything he says sounds like poetry, and he’s good at the snappy one-liner).

British Writers: The Spoken Word (The British Library: 2008), 3-CD set, ISBN 9-7807-12305-419

It  contains audio recordings of speeches, stories, interviews and other highly absorbing samples of all the writers mentioned above, and also Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Rebecca West, Somerset Maugham, G K Chesterton, E M Forster, Daphne Du Maurier, Anthony Burgess, C P Snow, Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter, Joe Orton and J G Ballard.

More enthusiasm about writers and books from Kate on

About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher, and publisher (, in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

One comment on “A Vulpes Random on Voices from the Past

  1. Jackie
    December 8, 2013

    This sounds like a great CD! I’m so used to thinking of authors speaking through their books, that I seldom give thought to what their actual voices sound like. And when this was recorded, it was before TV erased so many of the regional accents. Thanks for your amusing way of writing the review and the insight which the subject gave you. Startling and amusing.

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