I’ve always liked the idea of audiobooks: something you could listen to on demand. The trouble was, we lacked the technology. Cassette tapes and CDs etc are fine, but bulky – so downloads have to be the answer. And then, of course, there are those endless commuter journeys, which by and large I’ve been spared as I have either worked at home or have lived close by my various digs. But having said that, I do travel to London quite often, to see publishers and the like, and often catch commuter trains, where many of the regular passengers are listening to audiobooks or podcasts. And again, it makes excellent sense and is far more relaxing then reading which can be very difficult on a noisy, over-crowded train. On with the headset, and into the book. Silence. And then another world.
I had that other world very much in mind when I wrote The Fens in the first place. So it was quite easy to slip back into it when I re-read it for the audiobook. Recording audiobooks has been quite a journey of discovery for me – and one I’ve enjoyed hugely. Like many such journeys it has also been a humbling experience: if I were to do it badly, I’d be letting so many people down, but at the same time I didn’t have many opportunities to hone my technique. I’m not an actor, but for some reason I’ve always been able to read out and reach an audience. So that was a skill I had to work on – and I only had four days of recording to do it. It was quite a challenge.
In actual fact, I’d be telling a fib if I said that The Fens audiobook was my first one, because it wasn’t. That honour goes to PATHS to the Past, which I recorded in a single, day-long session, in 2018. If I’m strictly honest I have to confess I can’t remember much about it, other than the studio was somewhere in London and I stumbled out of it absolutely shell-shocked, drained and exhausted. I’d no idea that concentration on a text could be quite so mind-numbingly intensive. I’ve always respected actors, mostly I suspect because I’m a crap one myself, and that session in front of the microphone convinced me of their huge talents and very great discipline. I never got a download of PATHS, but I’ve managed to hear a few free minutes on the web – and it doesn’t sound at all bad. So please rush out and buy a copy (Francis, was that written with sufficient enthusiasm? – Ed.).
I remember being a bit surprised that I had to read the entire text of PATHS for the audiobook, but as it was 40,000 words long (less than half that of an average book of 90k words), that seemed quite reasonable. But it was still very ambitious to expect a newcomer to do it in a day. But we did it. A few weeks ago I learned that The Fens was to be recorded by audiobook specialists W.F. Howes, at their studios in Rearsby, just outside Leicester. An email told me that we’d be recording the entire text. At this point I came close to wetting myself: The Fens is just over 120,000 words long! How could any sane person possibly read such a vast text aloud without going hoarse or insane – or indeed both? I had visions of Maisie driving to Leicester to collect my twitching semi-conscious body in the sheep trailer filled with lots of fresh wheat straw… Then I discovered that we were expected to complete the marathon task in four days, divided into two recording sessions, of two days each. That sounded a bit more manageable. But only a bit. I have to say, it was still very daunting.
I took a taxi to the studio from the hotel just outside Leicester. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the fields looking wetter. Ridge and furrow was standing out, as if it were the Middle Ages and the River Soar was in full flood. The taxi had to turn round a couple of times, as the road ahead was under water. This has been the wettest autumn I can recall. We eventually got to the studio and I was taken to the recording room.
From the outside, the studio looked like any other light industrial building. But once inside it was very different. The main recording room contained two sound-proofed booths; each one had a mixing desk directly outside its only window. This was where my sound-recordist, audio engineer and producer – all rolled into one charming individual, Lewis Hampson – was to sit. As soon as I entered the room he greeted me and asked the all-important question: would I like a cup of tea or coffee? Once he’d handed me my tea, Lewis showed me into the booth. I have to say it was quite snug, but then it had to be: its walls and ceiling were thickly lined with black foam to absorb any traces of echo or noises off. The foam lining also ensured that it grew hot (any air-conditioning would have been far too noisy). I sat in a swiveling chair in front of the only window, which looked-out onto Lewis and his array of screens and complex digital jiggery-pokery. On my side of the window was a narrow ledge on which was perched an iPad. This displayed my book, page-by-page, and I was able to scroll down through it, avoiding pictures, by simply using my finger on the screen (happily I’m quite at home with reading e-books on my own iPad). A huge microphone was suspended just above the screen and there was also a very large and well-padded set of head-phones. The headphones allowed me to communicate with Lewis, just outside the window.
As soon as I’d finished my mug of tea we started recording. I remembered from doing Paths to the Past, not to read too fast and I tried to keep half an eye on the sentence to come – it’s a bit of a knack, but worth it. I think we had a couple of false starts, but once I’d got going we did a full half page before I stumbled. Modern digital recording is wonderful because it allows the editor outside the window to stitch-together sentences that get broken during recording, but it’s up to the reader to match the speed and tone – which isn’t always as straightforward as it sounds. Slowly, as I read, it all started to come back to me and it was very weird – almost as if I was writing it again, but for the first time. I know that doesn’t make sense, but it’s how it felt: déjà vu, but fresh and newly experienced. As the minutes ticked past I began to get into my stride and by half an hour I was scampering along. Then a few gurgles started in my throat, so I got another cup of tea. That worked for a few minutes, before, that is, the dreaded tummy gurgles began. At first, I ignored them. After all, people sitting alongside you in the tube don’t hear tummy rumbles. I’ve even been known to let slip the occasional small fart – providing I know I’ll be getting off at the next station. And I always get away with it: as the train pulls out I never see people in my carriage retching or holding their noses. No, they continue to stand, immobile and distant, avoiding all eye contact. Typical London, in fact. But to return to the recording booth: I continued to pretend the gurgles weren’t happening. And then it happened. Lewis cut in:
‘Sorry, Francis, can we re-do that last sentence? Take it from “The Must Farm boats…”’
I decided not to question him and started to read, yet again. Then the gurgles resumed; this time with added strength. Not so much gurgling liquid, as boiling lava. Again Lewis cut in:
‘Sorry, Francis, one more time:’
He wound the recording back and I started again:
‘The Must Farm boats were discovered…’
But that was as far as I got. This time the gurgle was a real wig-lifter. They may well have heard it outside the booth. Lewis was smiling broadly.
‘Let’s pause for a cup of tea and a breakfast bar. They usually calm stomach noises down.’
And he was right. They did. I had two. But once back in the booth it took about ten minutes for the gurgles to resume and the ultra-sensitive microphone picked them up, loud and clear. But Lewis had another trick up his sleeve. He rose to his feet and came round to the door at the back of the booth. He said something, but I couldn’t hear him. So, feeling rather stupid, I removed the head-phones. He was pointing at the floor in the corner or the booth, by my left foot. Then I saw what was there: a plump, soft cushion.
‘Hold that across your front and then we’ll see how we get on.’
And I did. And it was miraculous. One or two thunderous gurgles did manage to penetrate the cushion and be picked up by the microphone – but only a few. Maybe half a dozen all day.
There’s an interesting twist to this story. Everyone over 60 is sent a bowel cancer faecal smear kit every two years until they’re 74. You take the samples, send them off, and then receive a short ‘all clear’ letter, if you’re lucky. But about a month previously I had received a letter from Hinchingbrooke Hospital, Huntingdon, informing me that my bowel cancer smear had produced traces of blood, which might, but only might, indicate cancer in its early stages. So they had booked me in to have a colonoscopy (where they insert a small television camera in your rectum and look for cancer). It sounded rather grim, but the process wasn’t at all painful and the TV pictures were superb. I love glimpsing my insides – and this was in full, living colour! During the investigation they discovered 5 polyps (small usually harmless growths) – which they removed (live, on telly!). Then, when I got home I realised that my tummy had calmed down: the gurgles had ceased. So the next time I record an audiobook I won’t need that cushion!
And (this is written a week later) I’ve just been told by the hospital that the polyps were benign. LONG LIVE the NHS!
As part of the lead-up to the release of the audiobook on December 19th, I’ll be recording a live public interview on my Facebook page. Needless to state I’ll be doing this at my publishers, Head of Zeus, in London, as our broadband out in the Fens is far, far too slow. The interview is scheduled for 1.00 pm (1300 hours GMT) on Monday December 16th. So do watch it if you can – and feel free to ask a few questions.
And finally here’s a picture of me in the recording booth at W.F. Howes, taken by Lewis Hampson. At that stage in the recording, I had yet to acquire the cushion!