This month Olly Mann is excited to embark upon realising a life-long dream
Today, I’ve been recording an audiobook. That’s an exciting sentence to write; partly because, after eight hours of talking into a mic, writing anything provides a welcome break from talking. But also because - long before I ever heard the word ‘audiobook’—it’s something I aspired to do.
At primary school, for instance, I vividly recall waiting with breathless anticipation to take my turn reading out a paragraph of The Ladybird Book of Cars, or some equally thrilling tome. The little hardback would be passed around the classroom, each child clumsily blundering through their allocated text before chucking the book at the pupil on their left. I realised, of course, that the point of the exercise was to monitor our literacy and comprehension—not to entertain our fellow classmates, most of whom were busy flicking bogeys at each other. Nonetheless, I always performed my paragraph as if it were the sermon on the mount.
At my secondary school, students were encouraged to put themselves forward to select and present a reading at ‘morning talk’—a twice-weekly assembly—and I often added my name to the list. The school was non-denominational, so there was no expectation of piety: in fact, I went out of my way to push boundaries of taste. I once relished delivering a list of the average sizes of male genitalia from The Mackeson Book Of Averages, and, on another occasion, highlighted some racist fancy dress advice I’d found in an 1940s edition of The Girls Companion in the school library, hoping to embarrass the headteacher into buying some new books.
"Nonetheless, I always performed my paragraph as if it were the sermon on the mount"
This was all handy background for a career in broadcasting. But, much as I enjoy hosting shows and interviewing people, I often find myself missing the simple pleasures of reading out loud. Having to structure one’s thoughts into prose leaves less brain-space to focus on delivery. But occupying someone else’s mind for a bit, and reading out their words, is comparatively stress-free.
I’d thought about putting myself forward as a narrator for audiobooks. But I’m not an actor. I can’t do regional accents (without offending plenty of people). And playing female parts triggers unwelcome flashbacks of my portrayal of Mrs Hogg in a school production of The Sheep-Pig—essentially channelling The Two Ronnies, which is not, I suspect, what most listeners expect in 2021.
Non-fiction, then, seemed the obvious genre to target, but as an avid consumer of audiobooks I felt instinctively that such titles were best read by their authors—I’ve been utterly engrossed hearing memoirs by Andrew Neil, Maggie Thatcher, Peter Mandelson, Woody Allen, Fern Britton, David Mitchell, Nicholas Hytner, and many others, and felt they simply wouldn’t have resonated with me if it weren’t the protagonist’s own voices telling their stories.
Recently, delivering my son’s nightly bedtime story has rekindled my love for reading out loud—highlights so far have included Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlotte’s Web, and, at one point, I even dusted down my Mrs Hogg. But I never thought I’d get the opportunity to do it professionally.
Then, last month, out of the blue, I was contacted by an audiobook production company! James Plunkett, author of End State, a forthcoming book about political ideas, was apparently 1) an introvert with no desire to read his book out loud, and 2) a fan of my podcasts, and thought I might do a reasonable job. Hurrah for policy wonks!
"So, I’ve spent this week secreted in a studio, on the top floor of an anonymous business centre in Maida Vale, simply reading stuff out loud"
So, I’ve spent this week secreted in a studio, on the top floor of an anonymous business centre in Maida Vale, simply reading stuff out loud (albeit on an iPad, because the manuscript has only just been sent to the printers, and the rustle of printed pages would cause obvious issues for the recording.) And I’m LOVING IT! Not least because my phone needs to be turned off. Days at a time, focussed on one task, without multiple messages flashing up, is a holiday in itself.
Mind you, it’s not an entirely zen experience. The process has flagged up just how often I actually fluff my lines: about once per page, which I’ve been told is absolutely average, but still, it’s disheartening when the recording needs to be stopped because I’ve just inadvertently skipped over a ‘the’, or had to clear my throat, or catch my breath. I’ve also learned, to my dismay, how many words I’ve been mispronouncing my entire life: behavioural is BE-HAYVE-YOU-RAL, not BE-HAYVE-EE-AH-RUL; Friedrich Engels is FREED-RICK, not FRIED-RICK; and Thales of Miletus is THEY-LEESE, not THAY-ULLS (albeit I’ve never had much prior cause to talk about him). The knight in shining armour has been youglish.com, a not-for-profit website that scours YouTube transcriptions to throw up real-time pronunciations from over 100 million videos. I’ve donated them a fiver in my sincerest gratitude.
Even though I’ve had to work evenings and weekends to make up for the all the daytime work hours I’ve lost whilst tackling this 339-page book, I’ve found the whole process sublime, and hope this becomes the first of many. So, fingers crossed for that reissue of the Mackeson Book of Averages…
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