As we trudge towards the shortest day, cheer can be somewhat thin on the ground, and it’s testament to the enduring power of the late comedian Victoria Wood that among my instant tonics is her celebrated song, “The Ballad of Barry and Freda”. You simply can’t stay in the doldrums once you’ve pictured this sexually frustrated husband and wife battling it out over the tufted Wilton, as a full-throated Wood delivers line after brilliant line (Freda’s exhortation to “Beat me on the bottom with a Woman’s Weekly!” will never age). Indeed, a truncated version introduces Jasper Rees’s authorised biography (Trapeze, £21.99), and it’s both fascinating and instructive to hear Wood negotiating with a live audience to hold on to their applause while she gets at least a few verses under her belt.
It’s hard to imagine another audiobook with such a stellar cast of readers, all connected to Wood, available to do the honours. Susie Blake, Richenda Carey, Celia Imrie, Duncan Preston, Anne Reid, Daniel Rigby, Kate Robbins, David Threlfall, Julie Walters and Jane Wymark each take their turn at narrating Rees’s detailed account of Wood’s emergence from a relatively sequestered and solitary childhood, through years of gunning for a break, to her gradual elevation to the status of national treasure. Rees also drew on Wood’s own extensive audio diaries.
What strikes the listener most is Wood’s unflagging work ethic — especially in the early days, when she not only trooped from venue to venue but also had to put up with whatever piano was provided. “I’m not very famous,” she is recounted as having said when she was asked to write about fame. “When questioned, five out of 10 people thought I’d just played for the last time at Wimbledon, or committed suicide by walking into the sea with rocks in my cardigan.”
The joy here comes from hearing familiar voices narrate Wood’s own lines — “Well, you can smile, but that’s how people go to hell, unfortunately”, intones Preston, with characteristically mournful regret; Reid movingly recounts Wood’s experience of terminal cancer, in which she writes with striking unsentimentality to her friends (“I would go bald,” she told Wymark, “if not for the press, or anyone with a phone.”). Taken as a whole, it’s a glorious intimate portrait of an extraordinary woman.
Here are two choices that I first read in print; I had a hunch they might work really well as listening experiences, despite the fact that they are unlike one another. First, Rumaan Alam’s Leave The World Behind (Bloomsbury, price varies), narrated by American actor Marin Ireland, whom you might have seen in television roles including Homeland and The Umbrella Academy. Here, what she brings is a crucial steadiness, which captures a very human desperation to pretend that everything is alright when it demonstrably isn’t.
The narrative centres on Amanda, Clay and their two kids, a white, middle-class family from Brooklyn who holiday every summer in the backwoods of Long Island. But barely have they got the barbecue sizzling than the owners of their holiday let turn up, in flight from a terrible and mysterious catastrophe in the city. What we listen to is an agonising drip-feed of information and calamity — television stations turn to emergency feeds, flamingos and deer mass beyond the swimming pool — interspersed with dispatches from the minds of the six protagonists. Audio is a great medium for creating unease and withholding knowledge, that single voice adding to a growing sense of claustrophobia and panic. And although the novel was written before the pandemic, it nonetheless seems completely of the moment.
Entirely different is Eley Williams’s The Liar’s Dictionary (Cornerstone Digital, £13), one of my favourite novels of the year. A friend described it as a visit from the best friend you didn’t know you had and, although I would provide the caveat that it is not for those without an attachment to words and their sinuous, shifting history, I concur. Put simply, it is a comic romp through an imagined world of lexicography — hence its suitability for listening; who would not want to hear the word “apricity” (the warmth of the sun in winter), never mind its difference from “apricide” (the ceremonial slaughter of pigs)? Read with gusto by Kristin Atherton (mentioned here previously as the narrator of Jonathan Coe’s Mr Wilder and Me) and Jon Glover, The Liar’s Dictionary is a real balm of a book.
Indulge me in a recommendation for a book that isn’t new — but is seasonal. Mark Haddon’s story collection The Pier Falls (Vintage Digital, £10), read by Clare Corbett and Daniel Weyman, includes the magnificent long piece “Wodwo”, a dark retelling of Gawain and the Green Knight that translates marvellously, in all its sudden violence and allegorical patterning, into a spoken version. I’m not sure I could wholly recommend it for a fireside family gathering — it’s not an entirely happy listen — but it is not to be missed.
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