Recent Books on Tape

By Levi, Peter | The Spectator, March 13, 1999 | Go to article overview

Recent Books on Tape


Levi, Peter, The Spectator


It is very unfair, but the pure, unabridged readers of their own works do not always make the best tapes. The voice itself can be so deadly dull that one might have preferred an actor. The new Hideous Kinky (CSA TellTapes, 8.99, three hours, abridged) is in many ways an admirable story, or at least a good idea, but the trouble is that Esther Freud has an unpalatably flat voice and absolutely nothing to talk about. She tells the story, through the eyes of a child of six, of what amounts to an exploit or holiday in Morocco and Algiers as she now remembers it. It is, alas, of an unutterable banality and even the sparkling innocence of childhood cannot really bring it to life. She used to be an actor and no doubt her sad, middle-class tones were imposed on her in drama school, but when it comes to reading her work aloud they simply will not do. And yet I hope she has a success because it is, after all, brave for anyone now to remember, even in a dreamlike way, the cavortings of an idiotic hippie parent in the Sixties.

She goes to Marrakesh, where she reminds me of a story Bruce Chatwin told me in 1970 about having been there in a saddlery shop where he was inspecting bits and pieces of camel equipment and observed one of the idols of the time, I think a Rolling Stone, if not a Sex Pistol, who was buying a cavalry outfit to go hunting with the Duke of Beaufort. I do not know what the Master would have thought of it, but the Rolling Stone was approached and addressed by a hippie, and himself replied with a terrible American drawl. The moment the hippie had gone, the Rolling Stone turned to Bruce. `God,' he said in normal Cockney, `what a ghastly bore these people are.'

I fear that Esther's mother must have been just such a bore and she certainly is so on her daughter's tape, but at this distance you cannot help rather liking her, her children and her comic lovers. There is nothing an unfriendly critic, as I suppose I am, can learn from this tape and yet it is a charming enough tale of a lost holiday or a lost generation. I am told that when Esther recently revisited her ancient haunts she kept exclaiming to the friend she was with, `Isn't it wonderful how normal we are!' The problem is, of course, that normality has mingled with the past and only her mother's lovers, who are numerous and various, do anything to cheer it up.

Classic Love Stories (CSA TellTapes, 8.99, three hours, unabridged), on the other hand, is deeply pleasing and any objection to any part of it would be mere pedantry. `The Sphinx without a Secret' by Oscar Wilde may well be a story with a private meaning because his great friend Ada Leverson was always called the Sphinx by him. The story has charm and that is the point of it.

`Mr and Mrs Dove', being by Katherine Mansfield, is a perfect story and for all I know it is a masterpiece. I had never read it before and like everything else by that writer it left one hungry for more. It is about a marriage proposal that does not come off; and it is memorably accompanied by the cooing of doves imitated brilliantly by the reader, Rosalind Ayres (Mrs Martin Jarvis).

This is followed by 'Angela' by W. S. Gilbert, which is a weaker, even sadder, tale, and then by Louisa M. Alcott's highly unexpected story about hashish on the East Coast of America before the first world war. It is thrilling and a great surprise. Then comes another Katherine Mansfield, `The Singing Lesson, which is a delicate study, amusing and with an unexpected happy ending which is unusual in this collection. The masterpiece is surely Thomas Hardy's `The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion', about a soldier quartered in Dorset near Weymouth on the downs, serving in the Duke of York's regiment. …

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