From Monday the splendid BBC Radio 4 Extra will be broadcasting the Book Of The Week recording of Attention All Shipping that first went out on Radio 4 in 2004. I know, it does sound a long time ago, doesn’t it? Charlton were in the Premiership and everything.
I’ve been lucky to have two of my books selected as Book Of the Week as well as there being abridged and unabridged audio versions of four of them (one was even voted the second best audiobook ever, deauntcha kneau*). This means that I’ve heard my words read by several different voices which, when you write first person books like I do, is a strange experience.
There’s as much, no, there’s more reading than writing involved when you turn out a book. The constant revising, tinkering and smoothing means that by the time you’re ready to submit it to the publisher you can practically recite the thing off by heart.
Naturally, the voice that you hear reciting those words in your head is your own. Well, I mean, who else’s would you expect? Leonard Rossiter? Brian Sewell? Snagglepuss?** But I think it’s especially true of first person non-fiction because you’re telling the story in your own voice.
When I’m writing I try not to be clever with words. Mainly because I don’t know many clever words, but I think that if I can keep it simple and clear with a rhythm that I’m happy with – and I believe rhythm to be an underrated, vital consideration in writing, especially humorous writing – then I’m happy. Essentially I’m trying to write in a way that I’d tell you the story if we were sitting there face to face. For better or worse, it’s me you’re getting in these books.
So when I hear someone else reading the words that are so familiar to me it’s a curious experience but one that I can never resist. Strangely, while I can’t bear watching or listening to myself on the television or radio, I never missed a minute of one of my books on Book Of The Week: I was pacing up and down wringing my hands and biting my lip all the way through, like an expectant father outside the delivery room.
I can’t claim to have listened to every minute of every audiobook of my stuff – that would, after all, be a bit mad – but I’ve listened to good chunks. Why do I do this? Because I think I might learn from it. I think listening to other people, not least professional actors, reading my words might help make me a better writer.
Tom Goodman-Hill reads the Attention All Shipping abridgement (and, while we’re at it, hats off to the people who abridge books for broadcast – it’s a tough job but I’ve not heard a bad one of mine yet) so his is the first voice I ever heard reading my stuff out loud other than the glottal stoppy, stilted, nasal whine inside my head.
He did a great job, and for me the best thing about it was hearing the different inflections and emphases he put on my words that were very different from mine and realising that even though it was my ‘voice’, his voice had enhanced what I’d written.
It was the same when Alex Jennings recorded the Attention All Shipping audiobook, but was more pronounced when the In Search Of Elvis audiobook was read by Julian Rhind-Tutt. For one thing, his was a voice already familiar to me from the television. For another, I was there for some of the recording and it was fascinating to watch him in the studio, waving his arms around as he read, even on a couple of occasions leaping up out of his chair.
It was the same when Martin Freeman read And Did Those Feet for Book Of The Week on Radio 4. A hugely familiar voice, obviously, and an inspired choice of reader (his reading of the final chapter is one of the highlights of what I laughably call my career). His rhythms, emphases and pauses were totally different to those in my head when I wrote it – especially that final chapter – and to me the book sounded all the better for it.
When I’m asked to give writing seminars one of my main aims is to get people to trust their own voices and have confidence in their own style. Not to attempt to sound ‘writerly’ or to sound like anyone else. That’s the only way you’ll be convincing to the reader.
For me, hearing professional actors reading what I’ve written and it sounding even vaguely plausible is an encouraging sign that, while I may still have a long way to go, I’m on the right track.
* This is not big-headed boasting. Well, maybe a bit. But it is telling that the version of that book that achieved the highest accolade was the version I had the least to do with.
** Actually, Snagglepuss would be quite a cool voice to have in your head when reading your own stuff. If in my next book you come across paragraphs starting with the phrase, “Heavens to murgatroyd”, you know what’s happened.