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Heaven’s Command!

By Nicolas Soames

1 April 2011

One danger of working on a label devoted to the classics like Naxos AudioBooks is that a high benchmark is set. The other day I arrived in the studio just as the actor David Horovitch (he of The Leopard and The Good Soldier Švejk) was coming to the end of 12 days of Charles Dickens. Roy McMillan was in the producer’s chair, and I tried to slide in inconspicuously because there was, inevitably, an atmosphere of both expectancy and conclusion as the climax approached. In the control room we heard David as the narrator (rather than as master of myriad characters) drawing the threads together, mourning what had happened but looking with some hope to the future.

Pax Britannica is one of the finest pieces of sustained history writing I have ever come across

The danger is that when we turn away from ‘HiLit’ like that, it is so easy to feel that more contemporary usage of the English language can sound rather poor or sloppy. Certainly this can be the case in contemporary non-fiction, where the imparting of facts may be regarded as the primary purpose. Of course Jan Morris’s landmark historical account of the British Empire, the Pax Britannica trilogy, dating from the 1960s and 1970s, is scarcely contemporary, but, if you don’t know it, let me tell you that the writing is imbued with such imagination and grace. This may be because Morris is simply one of the finest writers of English of our time, or it may be because in Heaven’s Command, Pax Britannica and Farewell the Trumpets, she looks at this remarkable time with affection and respect, as well as balance. She doesn’t disguise or conceal the darker aspects of Britain’s colonial past, but places them in context.

I have to say that the decision to record the trilogy for audiobook was a bit of an indulgence on my part. I had grown up with this history and I remember being glued to the paperbacks: I largely exited myself from society until I had finished them. The adventures, the discoveries, the journeys, the disasters, the personalities, the achievements, were all made so real – helped by the fact that Morris had visited so many of these places. Looking at the books again I felt that they had certainly stood the test of time and after recording her history, Venice, last year, I knew that Morris’s lively use of English comes across with immediacy on audiobook.

Roy McMillan

Roy McMillan

But who should read this massive trilogy? 16 CDs of Heaven’s Command and 13 CDs each of Pax Britannica and Farewell the Trumpets. I asked Roy McMillan, one of the most versatile members of the Naxos AudioBooks team. He had recently finished reading Don Quixote unabridged (29 CDs; coming in June) and had slipped to the other side of the microphone to produce Maxine Peake’s recording of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and then Adam Sims’s reading of Nightmare Alley (that noir classic we are reviving this month); so, I reckoned, he was ready to go back into the sound studio itself. He was delighted by the project, and, being a man of energy and optimism, set about preparing, which meant dealing with the humongous task of dealing with the pronunciations of all those foreign names and places. The British Empire covered the world, and Roy buckled down to finding out how to pronounce the names of palaces, battles, freedom fighters, generals, queens and temples from every continent. He tells me he remained undaunted – until towards the end when he came across a dozen or more names of people, towns and villages in the Congo. It was almost in despair that he rang the Congolese embassy in London… but he got there in the end. He was in the studio for 15 days (with the occasional break!) and emerged, appropriately bloodied but unbowed – or in other words exhausted but invigorated by the task.

Then we went to the friendly Hats Off studio in the little village of Stonesfield just outside Oxford, to meet Jan Morris. She had agreed to read a short introduction to each of the books. One downside of being a classics label is that we don’t often get to meet the authors! But although Jan is now in her mid-80s, she drove down from her home in Wales to record for us. Acute, hugely knowledgeable, witty and enjoying life, she recorded her words as easily as one would expect from a seasoned broadcaster, and then we all went out to a sunny lunch in the village pub. She appreciated Roy’s Congolese efforts, spoke a little about her life as a journalist (famously, she was the first to report Hilary and Tenzing’s triumph in conquering Mount Everest in 1953 – the news was released on the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation), urged us to read Fisher’s Face, her biography of Admiral of the Fleet Lord ‘Jacky’ Fisher, and then got into her car and drove back to Snowdonia. We could only stand and admire.

Certainly Pax Britannica is one of the finest pieces of sustained history writing I have ever come across, and I urge you to enjoy it in company with Roy McMillan, starting this month with Heaven’s Command!

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