Christmas Special: Audiobooks reviewed

This year's selection of audiobooks offers valuable life lessons in how to write verse, teach French to chefs and English to New Yorkers, and make last-minute camel costumes. What would Milton have made of it all, wonders Sue Gaisford
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Apparently, a grayling is either a little silvery salmon or a satyrid butterfly. Just like those creatures, A C Grayling's thoughts dart about with apparently random purposefulness, as he presents a philosophy that is accessible, eclectic, provocative and above all, useful.

He opens his collection of essays enquiring into The Meaning of Things (Orion £13.99) with Montaigne's encouraging salutation to his public: "Reader, lo! A well-intentioned book." Grayling's own book is as practical as it is well-intentioned. In a clear, youthful voice, he summons up ideas from Livy and Cicero, from Dodie Smith and Eeyore, extolling tolerance and civility, condemning moralists and defeatists and providing succinct aphorisms that expand in the mind and convert mundane irritants into unexpected opportunities for joy: nothing, he says, ever happens without a lesson to offer. You'd want to come back to him as to a sybil, for regular, boosting injections of insight and wisdom.

Grayling quotes a Chinese proverb: "Govern a family as you would cook a small fish - that is, very gently." Precious few families work that way, but this very lack of gentleness famously becomes fertile ground for writers. Frank McCourt is such a man. His third book draws upon his notoriously miserable childhood only as a technical resource, for it describes his long years working in New York high schools as a Teacher Man (Harper Collins CD £15.99, tape £13.99) when his restless students could best be quelled by telling them the stories that were to become Angela's Ashes. The voice is old now, thickened with memory and regret, but to anyone who has ever tried to teach unruly city adolescents it rings true as a tuning-fork - just try taking 34 rebellious 15-year-olds to the cinema before you dare question his magnificently unorthodox methods of attracting and holding their attention.

Roger McGough did his share of teaching, most happily in a cookery school where he instructed young chefs in culinary French while "living out of a suitcase - I had thought of saying 'battered' but feared it conjured up something deep-fried". In Said and Done (Random House £13.99), his delightfully self-deprecating autobiography, he looks back on Liverpool in its heyday, reflects on his early years in The Scaffold when he hobnobbed with the Beatles - "John was the chilli in Paul's jam, the knuckle in his duster" - and is amazed that he can write prose at all. In fact, his prose is lovely, considered, concise and frequently frivolous, but it never strays far from the poetry that is his natural environment and, essentially, his subject.

McGough writes about the unbidden spontaneity of poetry: A poem, he says, "either happens or it doesn't, and if it doesn't then no amount of mouth-to-mouth will breathe life into it." This seems right, though Stephen Fry would surely disagree. At the end of The Ode Less Travelled (Random House £19.99) the ubiquitous polymath confesses that, in a parallel life, he too might have been a teacher or even a poet. But then, after seven CDs and eight hours of his intensive tuition, we should all be poets. Fry's extraordinary book is an idiots' guide to the writing of poetry, a primer, a tutorial with funny turns, an earnest textbook. Listen no longer, he exhorts us near the beginning, until you have written 20 lines of iambic pentameter - and you find yourself obediently hunting for a pen.

It is a perplexing business. A poet is not a plumber to be instructed in the use of the equipment and set loose upon the pipes: real poetry resists such trammelling. Yet you can't but marvel at Fry's easy familiarity with the rictameter and the rondeau redoublé and applaud the energy of his evangelistic zeal. God knows what Milton would have made of it all, but then God and Milton were pretty much hand in glove. At the start of Paradise Lost (Naxos £31.50) Milton declares that he is the very chap to "justify the ways of God to man". This is the kind of enormous poem that makes your heart sink to contemplate yet, the minute you start reading, its beauty and its vast audacious scope raise your spirits up and up, right into th'ethereal sky. And it is even better to have it read aloud in its stately entirety by that prince of the classical canon, Anton Lesser: the whole production is masterly.

Lesser also reads Liza Picard's latest and best contribution to the capital's history. It is marvellous, so much livelier than Dickens. Here statistics, adventures, characters and anecdotes are richly layered into orderly chapters, to form not so much a detailed picture as an Advent calendar whose every window opens on a new, densely populated, noisy, smelly, inequitable, progressive and vigorous aspect of Victorian London (Orion £16.99/ £13.99). It is full of surprises. To take just one example, 19th-century Londoners enjoyed 12 posts a day. With such a service, what need of emails?

Geoffrey Spicer Simson, born in 1876, was a true son of Empire. In 1915 he led a small overland expedition to engage the Germans on Lake Tanganyika, taking with him two small boats, some monogrammed cigarettes, Worcester sauce and an ego the size of Kilimanjaro. Giles Foden's Mimi and TouTou Go Forth (Penguin 12.99) tells the richly comic story of this appalling man, whose preferred uniform was a nice comfy khaki skirt and who was revered by the local tribesmen as Lord Belly Cloth. The excellent Simon Russell Beale narrates with gusto.

Finally, a glance at some seasonal frivolities. My daughter thought that the second verse of a familiar carol began "The battle below him, the baby awakes", which tells you something about her upbringing. In the same vein, Gervase Phinn trots out stories from the infant school in A Wayne in a Manger (Penguin £8.50) which will be familiar to every parent whose furious child has been passed over for a starring role in a Nativity play, or who needs a camel costume, right now. It is considerably funnier than 1966 and All That (Hodder £14.99). Craig Brown's cod history plods through the 20th century alongside such characters as King George's son Lloyd, Ralph Vaughan Walt Whitman Walton, Lady Utterly Quarrel and other "leading ineffectuals". It is quite remarkably dreadful.

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