A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Friday, 10 January 2014

ECW - in which I almost discuss audiobooks

I like to listen to stuff when I’m driving – music (a lot), radio (a good bit, though I have to switch off current affairs phone-ins because they bring on road rage) and increasingly I have a liking for audio books, which is a fairly new area for me.

My new car will play mp3 files, from CDs or flash drive cards of any size you like. This is such a boon and such a novelty that I’m still experimenting with the possibilities. A few months ago I started downloading promising looking audiobook titles from LibriVox and elsewhere – sadly, I have found this to be mostly very disappointing.

The idea that you can get a free download of someone reading a worthwhile book is exciting – the reality is that the actual reading is done by someone who considers that he has a good speaking voice, often without very much apparent justification. It’s easy to find fault – if I’m getting this much entertainment for nothing, you would think, I should just shut up and make the best of it.

Doesn’t work for me. As a native of Liverpool, who has lived most of his life in Scotland, I am probably not well placed to criticize anyone else’s accent, but I am very familiar with the problems of making myself understood by a (potentially hostile) stranger. A number of these books are read by someone whose accent I find distracting, and it is surprisingly common to find mispronounced words; there was one chap whose speech is punctuated by a strange clicking sound, which I believe may be his dentures, and it is very common indeed for the reader to demonstrate that he has little or no understanding of what he is saying – which actually makes it hard to follow. The funniest audiobook I have is a brave effort by a husband and wife team who have done a huge job reading one of the better-known 19th Century works on military strategy; quite a lot of this book makes reference to French and German place names and people. The couple, between them, do not have the beginnings of a clue on pronunciation, but compensate enthusiastically by reading a phonetic English version in a strangulated, “foreign” voice – shades of Moriarty from the Goon Show – there is a short but distinct pause as they take a run-up at each fresh challenge.

Reading aloud a text – especially someone else’s text – so that it is easy to listen to and understand is a tricky business, and certainly something that I would not attempt – at least not where anyone could hear me. For a start, a script which is written specifically to be read out should be written with that in mind – sentences should be reasonably short and clearly structured, and great swathes of attached clauses, parentheses and afterthoughts should be avoided. “Fine writing” of the type promoted at your local night school Creative Writing classes – never use one adjective if you can use two – is tricky to read aloud. Spoken presentation of a formal, written piece of prose requires a very great (and rare) skill – that is why Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud and a few others did such a lot of it. They were good.

Before I went to visit Chester I downloaded an excellent podcast about the Siege of Chester, presented by Melvyn Bragg in his BBC radio series on “Voices of the Powerless” (you can buy it here if you are interested).

I put it on a CD, for my in-car homework prior to the Chester trip, and took the opportunity to fill up the rest of the disc with the mp3 version of an audio CD about the ECW I bought about a year ago. I hadn’t listened to this before – never got around to it – but it’s surprising what you can get through on a solo car journey.

Hmmm. I’m not going to spend a lot of time analysing it, but I did buy the thing so I guess I’m entitled to a view. It is, again, an enthusiastic, rather amateurish production – well recorded, with some nice sound effects and some pleasing period music from Packington’s Pound and others, but heavy going. The producer was also the writer and the narrator. He pulled out all the stops on the serious writing effort, but left himself with an almost impossible reading job as a result. The format is a series of earnest dialogues – mostly with Oliver Cromwell – written in a carefully hand-polished style and delivered in a clear Luton accent – I found that words like “troof” and even “nuffink” did little for my listening experience. Cromwell is asked a load of serious questions, and replies appropriately. It is not a lot of fun, though the sleeve notes and credits suggest that a fair amount of fun was had by those recording it. Sir Laurence would have made a better job of it.

You what, luv?
In a roundabout way, this leads me back to what might have been a central theme for this post, if I had thought of it earlier – what did spoken English sound like during the Civil War? If we had met Lord Goring and his mates, could we chat with them? What about William Brereton? Or Lettuce Gamul? Would the Voices of the aforementioned Powerless have meant anything to us? I haven’t been reading ECW material for long, and when I first started I had major problems with the spelling and wording of 17th Century texts. Somehow, I seem to have gone some way toward getting the hang of this, since I now find the contemporary quotes and correspondence very entertaining, and also intriguing. I realize that people expressed themselves in a different manner in those days, and the rules of grammar were not what we might expect today. In the absence of standardised spelling, what we see must be each writer’s attempt to record what he heard people say – names of places and people show a surprising variety of spellings, and there must be a lot of clues in there about how people spoke – what did English sound like in those days, officially and locally?

All I know about the voices of the day is that Richard Harris stares at the horizon and shouts throughout the movie Cromwell – there must be more to it than that. I did manage to dig up a lengthy, learned text on the subject of the changes in English dialects since Tudor times, but that isn’t a lot of fun either. Unless everyone promises to behave nicely, I may record myself reading it aloud – preferably when I’m drunk – and release it on LibriVox. It will be a surefire cure for insomnia.


  1. I downloaded a translation of a medieval devotional text from that site once, and it was ready by an aged lady just this side of a coma. A pity, as it is all well intentioned.
    I rather suspect that ECW types wouldn't have sounded much different than Shakespearean English, but even if there were no unfamiliar or archaic words in the way, I doubt most people could understand them today because they are all so bleeding thick. Even 19th century orations by Lincoln and Disraeli would be impenetrable to people today because they require several brain cells engaged to follow.
    I loved your line about Richard Harris. I think Charles I went to the block in that film simply so he wouldn't have to listen to Cromwell any more. A great film, with great scenery chewing by RH.

    1. Yes - the LibriVox initiative is so well-intentioned that I feel very bad about offering any criticism. In a way, it typifies what is a major limitation of the whole Internet - it is a colossal source of free information - unbelievable - but unfortunately it is devalued by being mostly crap. Lowest common denominator - the people who have the time to contribute are typically those who are so dull they are not required elsewhere.

      Look at this blog, for a start...

  2. The Prometheus Podcast! I believe such things are popular with those that can understand them.

    1. Just another small step towards world domination - don't anybody say you haven't been warned. :o))

  3. I greatly enjoy audiobooks and it can be very frustrating when librivox comes out with something particularly interesting only to find that it has been read in a particularly uninspiring way. I find the best thing to do is to follow particular readers who know their business and stick with them. I've tried recording for Librivox myself and gave it up as a bad job as it would appear -ahem- that my talents lie else where.

    I've always found Mike Harris, Mark Smith, Phillipa, Peter Yearsley and Andy Minter worth listening to and there is another chap, whose name escapes me, who did a lot of Saki stories (Beasts & Superbeasts), that is very good.

    There is also audiobooksforfree.com. These are very, very good and they are read by professional actors. You can listen to their Sherlock Holmes collection in the human read audiobooks section of Gutenberg. Other stuff can be downloaded from their website, but only at 8kbs/s which is rather poor. Better quality recordings can be downloaded for a fee. I bought their complete set on dvd in 2005 for $180 which has been a great investment, though most of the original DVDs are scratched to hell by constant and repeated use.

    British Audio Books (http://britishaudiobooks.blogspot.ie/) is well worth a look. The reader, Felbrigg Herriot, reads public domain books with an emphasis on military history and fantastic fiction and they can be downloaded for a small fee. He's currently marching through the second volume of Oman. His pronunciation of some Spanish placenames can be a little odd sometimes, but I've enjoyed them. His stuff is available from a number of online audiobook sites, but he substantially discounts direct sales.

    Melyn Bragg's "In our time" is well worth a look too. It's a cracking non-fiction podcast and well worth listening too.


    1. Thank you, Mr Kinch - that really is extremely useful. I shall follow these up with interest - much appreciated

      Cheers - Tony