People: Get someone else to read it

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"And the winner is ... Dombey and Son," said Jeremy Hardy. So what crazed dream was this, in which an alternative comedian announced from the stage of a swish banqueting room in a London hotel that a classic novel by Charles Dickens had won a prize? And bear in mind that this was shortly after Morecambe and Wise had won one, not to mention the award for the Poets of the Great War.

It could only be the Talking Book awards, otherwise known as The Talkies, which took place on Friday afternoon, organised by Talking Business magazine (a title which sounds like a bit of a contradiction in terms, it has to be said).

As with all self-respecting awards ceremonies, there were bright lights and loud music and a sprinkling of celebrities. Sir John Gielgud received the Outstanding Achievement award, Miriam Margolyes was hailed as Best Performer of the Year, Eddie Izzard came top in Contemporary Comedy, and Robert Powell managed to win in two separate categories.

At certain moments it was almost possible to believe that you were at the Oscars or something equally glamorous, but Hardy's heavy ironic style of hosting the event meant that such moments were short-lived. "No more speeches," he announced at one point, after an award-winner had decided to give impromptu thanks to his various colleagues, "it's only fucking cassettes, you know."

They may only be cassettes, but they are undoubtedly big business. The Spoken Word industry, as it's known, is booming as never before; annual sales have increased 20-fold since 1990, up to a record pounds 67m. And as the many different award categories at the Talkies testified, there are talking books for every taste, from children's books and poetry to drama and fiction to biography and special interests. But who listens to them? All sorts of people. Eddie Izzard, for one.

"Usually in my car and late at night," he told me. "You know that thing when you're about to fall asleep and drive into a ditch? And then you put on Spoken Word! And it means you can go on for a lot further before you drive into a ditch."

Traditionalists complain about the way books are sometimes abridged. I raised this point with Louis de Bernieres, whose Captain Corelli's Mandolin came first in the Abridged Modern Fiction category. "I was initially worried about how people could possibly follow the story when so much had been cut," he said, "but if you haven't read the book, you don't realise that much has been cut out. I think they did a very nice job on it. And Robert Powell is such a good reader that he can make up for all the bits that are missing."

Powell told me it took him a day to record the three-hour tape. He's at the top of the tree in the talking book world, having recorded "about 20 or 30, maybe more". He's much in demand, putting a lot of his success down to his ability to sight-read. He can go into the studio and knock a book out in a few hours whereas another actor might spend days trying to get it right. "It's just a gift," he said. "There are great actors who can't read and there are mediocre actors who can read. But I must underline the fact that if you haven't got good words to read, then it's hopeless."

The last word goes to Sir John Gielgud, who can read a talking book like nobody else. Someone asked him if he ever listened to his own work. "No I don't very often," he replied. "I don't like the sound of my own voice."

A tape of this article read by the author, is available as an exclusive offer to 'Independent on Sunday' readers, price pounds 9.99 inc p&p. Cheques should be made payable to Hulse Enterprises Ltd.

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Down on your knees, please

When he was a student at Oxford, Robert Twigger won the prestigious Newdigate poetry prize, the previous winners of which included Oscar Wilde, John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold. However, for Twigger this proved not to be the precursor of literary fame, and he went on to drift through a succession of dead-end jobs. He was a hearse-driver for a while but he was fired for bumping the kerb and stalling, and his employment as the personal secretary to a Russian princess who wanted to dictate her memoirs to him ended when she decided his English wasn't literary enough. He ended up in Tokyo at the age of 30 teaching English to Japanese high school girls and sharing a tiny, cockroach-infested flat with a couple of friends. It was then he decided he ought to do something with his life, partly to get fit, but also for the sake of notching up an achievement of some sort. So he enrolled in an aikido course. But this wasn't any old aikido course, it was the amazingly tough aikido course trainee members of the Tokyo Riot Police take. What it amounted to, basically, was 11 months of torture.

Twigger has now written a book all about it, which is called Angry White Pyjamas and which I can highly recommend as a rattling good yarn and very funny into the bargain. (There are few books more satisfying than those which describe in detail other people's pain and misery.) I met him at his launch party last week and what I really wanted to know was how good he would be in a ruck now that he's a black belt. He's a quietly spoken chap and he was quite modest at first, telling me that a lot of aikido has to do with awareness and keeping your distance from a potential attacker. However, he then told me about a recent incident in Egypt when a friend of his was being manhandled and he decided to intervene. "This guy grabbed me and I put an aikido lock on his arm and he went down on his knees," he said. That's what I wanted to hear. I definitely want him on my team for the next England away game.

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Not charming at all

(This paragraph to be read in a Loyd Grossman voice.) Look through the keyhole of this "unusual and charming" Victorian townhouse which the estate agents Winkworth are currently delighted to offer to potential purchasers and what do you see? It's decorated in a pleasing contemporary style, with plain walls and stripped floorboards. The living room features original wooden shutters and a modern open fireplace. On the wall, there's a large photograph of a dog, while in the kitchen there's an aquarium full of tropical fish. Upstairs in the master bedroom there's a wooden double bed and on the wall facing it there's a giant photograph of a man's anus. Unusual, yes. Charming? Perhaps not. So who would live in a house like this?

(This paragraph to be read in a smart-alec journalist voice.) The answer is Alexander McQueen, fashion designer for the House of Givenchy, whose Islington home is now on the market, asking price pounds 350,000. The friend of mine who went round for a snoop says she's unable to confirm whether the giant anus is actually that of the vendor. She could only report that it was "slightly hairy".

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Do smart alecs shop at Harrods?

It seems Michael Cole, the Harrods PR man, has been getting rather hot under the collar regarding a story I wrote last week about Dodi Fayed. To recap, I described the experience of a friend of mine who worked at Harrods a few years ago and was mildly rebuked by the Harrods heir for using a lift reserved for customers. "Dodi was always courteous to ladies and it would have been completely out of character for him to have spoken to anyone in such a way," huffs Mr Cole in a letter to my editor. He goes on to say that if I'm prepared to specify "the day or even the week" that this happened, he will be able to confirm whether or not Dodi was in the country. "If he cannot or will not do that," Mr Cole concludes, "your readers will be justified in treating the story with the contempt that such smart-alec journalism deserves."

There are a few things to say about this rather pompous letter. First, I have to admit that I'd much rather be a smart-alec journalist than a Harrods PR man. Second, I would have thought Mr Cole had much more important matters to deal with in a week during which a florist was awarded pounds 16,500 in a racial discrimination case after being turned down for a job at Harrods, especially since the chairman of the industrial tribunal which made the award stated: "There was lying and deceit on the part of Harrods personnel to conceal that act of discrimination." And finally, I'm afraid I can't specify "the day or even the week" when Dodi Fayed displayed his apparently uncharacteristic discourtesy to my friend, since the incident happened some years ago and my friend doesn't keep a diary. However, she says she's perfectly willing to let bygones be bygones in exchange for a free weekend at the Paris Ritz and a bundle of cash in a brown envelope.

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Now I'm driven to beat Riven

You may recall that recently I was mystified by the computer game Myst until a 10-year-old reader wrote to explain to me that I'd actually reached the end of the game without realising it. Well, now the sequel to Myst, Riven, has finally reached the shops to much trumpeting in the computer games world and I nipped down to HMV to buy a copy last weekend. (For some reason the game's manufacturers omitted to send me a free one. A shocking PR gaffe, but I'll try not to hold it against them.) Having cancelled all commissions, I've so far managed to make my way into the funny golden dome thing and I've worked out the numerical system used by the strange raggedy people who run away every time I come near. How either of these things are going to help me I don't know, since I'm not entirely sure what I'm trying to achieve. But for now, please don't give me any hints because I'm determined to crack this one on my own. I want to prove just what a smart alec I really am.

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