a pair of
TODAY and next week I am going to review two more CD sets in the British Library’s Spoken Word series: British Writers and American Writers. Regular readers will recall I reviewed the poets in January. British Writers is a three-disc set featuring 30 authors, from a 1930 speech by Arthur Conan Doyle to a 1989 interview with Muriel Spark. I didn’t enjoy the writers as much as I did the poets, but that’s mainly a comment on the power of poetry. This collection is comprised largely of snippets from BBC programs, which just isn’t as satisfying as hearing Tennyson recite The Charge of the Light Brigade. Even so, there is much to relish and the best of it leaves you wanting more, such as a three-minute airport interview with a seamless Noel Coward. Asked what he thinks of the ‘‘angry young men’’ of British theatre, Coward zings: ‘‘I think of them very little as a matter of fact.’’ Asked whether the critics have become too clever for their own good, he zaps: ‘‘I have not observed any particular cleverness in the critics.’’ Graham Greene is his own harshest critic, describing the ‘‘failure’’ of novels such as Brighton Rock and The Heart of the Matter. He says The Power and the Glory is his best book. It is fascinating to hear Greene’s rather flat, bland voice, which becomes almost mesmerising as he talks about his boyhood games of Russian roulette and his lifelong battle with melancholia and boredom. It’s always absorbing to hear writers talk about their inspirations and here we have Conan Doyle on Edgar Allan Poe’s stories (‘‘A model for all time’’) and John le Carre on Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden books (‘‘The best of all spy stories’’). Le Carre also talks entertainingly about his own work. Maugham reads from his 1949 memoir A Writer’s Notebook, in which he speculates, inaccurately, about his prospects for literary longevity. One of the pleasures of these recordings is hearing English spoken well. P. G. Wodehouse, interviewed at 82, is a delight. On French translations of his novels: ‘‘Whenever they come up to a difficult bit they are rather apt to dodge it.’’ Not all the interviews go so sweetly. Evelyn Waugh, badgered about his Catholicism: ‘‘I am just trying to write books.’’ Tolkien, pestered about the place of God in The Lord of the Rings: ‘‘He’s mentioned once or twice.’’ Rudyard Kipling and Virginia Woolf talk about the power of words, and the 1937 broadcast by the latter is the only known recording of her voice. You have to laugh when she says that compared with Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale, Pride and Prejudice and David Copperfield are the ‘‘crude bungling of amateurs’’. I’ll give the last word to G. K. Chesterton, from a broadcast three months before his death: ‘‘You have to be happy in those quiet moments when you remember you are alive.’’ The Spoken Word: British Poets ($45) is distributed by Inbooks (www.inbooks.com.au). Next week: American Writers.