Spoken Word

<i>The Experiences of an Irish RM</i> by Somerville and Ross. Read by T P McKenna (Cover to Cover, 8hrs, &pound;21.99); <i>History of Britain</i> by Simon Schama. Read by Timothy West (BBC, 8hrs, &pound;14.99)
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The Experiences of an Irish RM by Somerville and Ross. Read by T P McKenna (Cover to Cover, 8hrs, £21.99);

The Experiences of an Irish RM by Somerville and Ross. Read by T P McKenna (Cover to Cover, 8hrs, £21.99);

Fox hunting, Irish peasants and resident English magistrates in the south of Ireland in 1900? Can they really add up to a good long haul listen a hundred years later? Yes, is undoubtedly the answer when the tale is told by the best comic writing duo in classic literature. Edith Somerville (1858-1949) of Castletownsend, County Cork, and her cousin Violet Ross need no introduction to their admirers. But the low key title and indeed opening of their most famous book, to say nothing of the apparent political incorrectness of its subject matter, means that for many their novels are an undiscovered delight. Trust me, and try it, for this is not a dry account of county court hearings but a hilarious love story written with a deep affection for both its characters and the country in which it is set. It's narrated by Major Yeates, an English magistrate who, with his wife Philippa, have arrived at Shreelane, the house they have rented from wily yet well-to-do Flurry Knox. This arrangement is complicated by Knox's mother, who resides in delapidated splendour in a nearby mansion overrun by dogs, horses, drink and a raft of eccentric neighbours. Give it time - Major Yeates sounds a little straitlaced at first, but it's intentional; so does any Englishman arriving in Ireland - until he gets seduced by the locals. Just wait until the dashing, apparently ingenuous, Flurry Knox, makes his appearance.

History of Britain by Simon Schama. Read by Timothy West (BBC, 8hrs, £14.99)

Simon Schama's energetic televisual power-walk through 46 centuries of British history - "The Story of Britain from the Earliest of Settlements in 3000 BC to the Death of Elizabeth I in 1603" - begins with the first settlers who landed on Orkney and carries on from there. Schama mulls over the daily life of a Roman soldier stationed on Hadrian's Wall, or analyses the successes and failures of the various kings and queens who have ruled these islands. The series has received plaudits from the critics and huge viewing figures. So why do we need a spoken-word version? Partly because it's a wonderful way of catching up on missed episodes, partly because the stunning visuals on TV inevitably encourage the mind to wander from Schama's brilliant and often provocative analysis of the events.

Listening to his words with the scenes, though still colourful, now muted and in the back of the mind's eye, makes it easier to engage in reacting to his ideas, questioning his assertions. It confirms a truth that most of us sense without being able to rationalise: watching television is an essentially passive experience; listening to radio or spoken word a much more intellectually active one. It's the more so here, because Timothy West reads with such punchy involvement and lively intelligence; a triumph on such a long haul.

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