The NAB Blog

From Baker Street to The Tay Bridge

By Nicolas Soames

1 April 2009

Sherlock Holmes is in the forefront of my mind at the moment – not surprisingly. The launch of David Timson’s extraordinary 60 CD set (72 hours!) of The Complete Sherlock Holmes (which includes his own new story, The Adventure of the Wonderful Toy) is without doubt a landmark in audiobook publishing history.

Ten years in the making, it is one of the ultimate tests of the reader, who is called upon to portray more than 200 characters, and show how Mr Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson mature and change as they deal with case after case, starting in their 20s, and finishing in their 60s.

The launch party, at The Audiobook Store in Baker Street, London, on 30 March was great fun: you can read a fuller report on it here.

But also on my mind is poetry. This is partly because this month we release two poetry recordings which could not demonstrate a greater contrast. From Shakespeare – with love is a collection of some of the finest Sonnets read by leading English actors to mark the 400th anniversary of the first publication. None other than David Timson has put it together – what a polymath! – choosing the sonnets and assigning them to carefully-selected readers.

David – who has directed a number of Naxos AudioBooks’s Shakespeare plays – has his own theory concerning the background to the Sonnets: he feels that Shakespeare may have used them as sketches for scenes in plays… This informed the recordings with David Tennant, Juliet Stevenson, Anton Lesser, Maxine Peake and many others – it certainly was a rather special time as one by one they popped into Motivation Sound Studio in North London for an hour or so. No matter how busy they were, it was very clear they were delighted with this excursion into some of the finest verse in the English language.

The same could not quite be said of our other April poetry release – the poems of William McGonagall. Widely regarded as the worst poet in the English language, this odd man had them rolling in the (Scottish) aisles in his lifetime, and is still inordinately funny with his atrocious rhymes, repetitions, rhythmic speed bumps and, frankly, nonsense.

Here is his most famous opening:

The Tay Bridge Disaster
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

Curiously, these poems can be quite tricky. They are funny, but partly because (we think!) they were serious to WM… and it is only too easy to misfire.

Not in the hands of Gregor Fisher, who came into the studio and immediately swung unerringly into action. You could hear the bagpipes, the audiences aghast, the nonsense of it all.

And there is no doubt that this IS poetry, as much as The Sonnets. I am, at the moment, preparing one of our autumn releases, The History of English Poetry written by Peter Whitfield. It is going to be an absorbing recording, I am sure, for Peter not only surveys the subject from the early days of Beowulf and Chaucer to Ted Hughes and the Beat Poets, but includes numerous examples of some of the finest lines.

He opens with words by Emily Dickinson:

If I read a book, and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it.

And he notes:

‘What emerges from this story is a series of love affairs with language, for what distinguishes poetry is that language itself is in the foreground: language is made to live and flow, in what can only be called the music of ideas. The line of verse and the stanza, isolated on the page, draw the eye and the mind to each word and phrase, which should be individually striking, but which must harmonise into a satisfying whole. Prose is subtler, more flexible, more diffuse and more forgiving. Two or three imperfect words can diminish or even ruin a poem; a thousand will not ruin a novel.’

This is unquestionably the feeling we get when we listen to the Sonnets. And, dare I say it, perhaps it is also true of William McGonagall.

For I can’t help feeling that William Shakespeare himself would have smiled and enjoyed Mr McG…

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