Tag Archives: audiobooks

The Road to Wigan Pier, read by Jeremy Northam, review

24 Apr

The Jeremy Northam Blog would like to welcome new contributer Amy Cockram, who has reviewed Jeremy’s latest audiobook for us.


Passing up a horrible squalid side-alley, saw a woman, youngish but very pale and with the usual draggled exhausted look, kneeling by the gutter outside a house and poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe, which was blocked. I thought how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling in the gutter in a back-alley in Wigan, in the bitter cold, prodding a stick up a blocked drain. At that moment she looked up and caught my eye, and her expression was as desolate as I have ever seen; it struck me that she was thinking just the same thing I was.

“Diaries,” George Orwell (edited by Peter Davison)

I like to start my reviews by declaring any bias that I have. That I like and admire the work of Jeremy Northam is no surprise, but I also like and admire George Orwell. I had to teach a seminar on Orwell during an abortive stint as a teaching assistant when I was a student, and this instilled in me an enjoyment of and admiration for his writing (this didn’t always happen; I loathed some things I had to teach). I know Orwell’s most iconic fiction – Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm – but I developed a personal preference for his journalism and essays. I would recommend his brilliant essay Politics and the English Language to anyone who writes, and I dread to think how many of his guidelines I will probably break in just this one piece of writing. So, given my admiration for Orwell, after Jeremy Northam read Down and Out in Paris and London and Homage to Catalonia – both of which have been reviewed by Gill on this blog – I found myself hoping that he would also read The Road to Wigan Pier for CSA Word. I am very happy that my wish came true.

George Orwell

The event that Orwell described in his diary above is also related, in a slightly changed form, in The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell’s diary entries from 31st January 1936 to 25th March 1936 record his experiences researching the book, which was first published in 1937. He spent these couple of months in 1936 travelling around the poverty-stricken industrial areas in the North of England, staying in cheap lodging houses and with working-class families, to see the conditions in which people were living and working. Orwell witnesses the gruelling and invaluable  – and yet scarcely valued – work that the coal miner does and comes to admire him more than any other man. What starts as an insight into extreme poverty becomes a tract against the iniquities of the British class system, before evolving into an essay in support of beleaguered Socialism. In its own way it is as political as Homage to Catalonia, but without all the acronyms.

It is interesting to hear and read The Road to Wigan Pier retrospectively, as some of Orwell’s descriptions foreshadow changes – not always for the better – in British society, while other fears have thankfully not come to fruition. The roots of Nineteen-Eighty-Four are clear in his fears over the possible rise of Fascism. Orwell is afraid that words are “feeble things,” ill-suited to adequately convey the misery he witnesses, but his words and Jeremy Northam’s voice together are very powerful indeed.

Orwell finds that the road to Wigan Pier is paved with coal and disappointment. He responds to a critic who accuses him of vilifying humanity:

Mr Orwell was “set down” in Wigan for quite a while and it did not inspire him with any wish to vilify humanity.  He liked Wigan very much – the people, not the scenery.  Indeed, he has only one fault to find with it, and that is in respect of the celebrated Wigan Pier, which he had set his heart on seeing.  Alas! Wigan Pier has been demolished, and even the spot where it used to stand is no longer certain.

The site of Wigan Pier (pictured in 1939)

Orwell is disappointed to find that Wigan Pier is no longer there, but this is nothing compared to people who have been disappointed by life. The young woman whom he sees trying to unblock her drain, fully aware of how destiny has cheated her, is the rule rather than the exception. The road to Wigan Pier is essentially a road to nowhere that leaves people adrift in hopeless poverty. The early chapters are bleak and show the landlord-forsaken, crumbling housing in which many people live.

Jeremy Northam

I would listen to Jeremy Northam read the phone book, as the cliche goes. There are occasions in The Road to Wigan Pier when he is obliged to recite costs of food, rent and housing conditions. I am aware that this sounds dry, but it isn’t. Orwell’s writing is a fascinating historical document which reveals how unbearably harsh conditions were for people living in poverty in the 1930s, and yet, somehow, bear it they did because they saw no better alternative. I have ancestors who were coal miners in Wales, so Orwell’s description of going into the mines was a fascinating and troubling insight into the conditions under which my relations would have toiled.

What, above all, saves this from dryness is the clarity of Orwell’s prose, and the empathy with which he writes about the people he meets. It is clear in his writing that Orwell liked and respected the people of Yorkshire and Lancashire: he doesn’t vilify humanity, but he does condemn the poverty in which they live. Jeremy Northam’s sensitive reading, bringing out Orwell’s anger at conditions and his scathing mockery of middle and upper-class attitudes, is perfectly suited to Orwell’s voice. All bias aside, I cannot think of an actor who would be better suited to bringing Orwell’s prose to life. The Road to Wigan Pier gives Jeremy less opportunity to display his range of accents and comic talent than did Down and Out in Paris and London (which remains my favourite Orwell performance of his). Jeremy Northam gets to do the occasional Northern dialect, but it is mainly George Orwell’s mockery of class prejudice – with which, he admits, he is partially complicit – that gives Jeremy the chance to adopt some snarky posh accents and bring out some humour. Where in Down and Out in Paris and London he had the opportunity to add some broad colour to Orwell’s narrative, here he works in subtle tones and shading.

At the risk of sounding greedy and asking for more, please can Jeremy Northam read Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying next? Thanks!

Thank you also to Gill for giving me the chance to write a guest post on her excellent blog.

The Road to Wigan Pier audiobook from CSA Word is unabridged (7 hours and 37 minutes, 6CDs). It is available on CD and as a download. You can hear a sample here.

© Amy Cockram, all rights reserved.


Many thanks to Amy for a great post. I hope it will be the first of many. You can read more from Amy at her excellent blog Stuff and Nonsense.

The Road to Wigan Pier, read by Jeremy Northam

16 Mar

If you enjoyed Jeremy Northam’s excellent George Orwell audiobooks Down and Out in Paris and London and Homage to Catalonia, you’ll be delighted to hear he has recently recorded The Road to Wigan Pier.

If ‘peerless prose’ could apply to one writer alone, I’d accord it to Orwell – The Guardian

From the CSA Word website:

Audible’s ‘LISTEN OF THE WEEK’ – for 12th March


The Road to Wigan Pier is a graphic and biting polemic, peculiarly suited to the medium of spoken word. It charts Orwell’s observations of working-class life during the 1930s in the industrial heartlands of Yorkshire and Lancashire. His critical portraits of the harsh mining conditions and of social inequality, poverty and rising unemployment continue to carry a fierce political relevance, and would inform his major works of fiction, including Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm.

It is available as a 6 CD set, or as a download (the download is available for UK Audible users only) and is 7 hrs and 37 mins in length. You can hear a sample here.

We’ll be posting a review, so watch out for that.

Licence Renewed and For Special Services read by Jeremy Northam: review

15 Jul

Thirty years after they were first published, Orion have released a hardback reprint of five of John Gardner’s James Bond novels. Mr Gardner wrote fourteen in total (more than any other Bond author, including the originator of the series, Ian Fleming).

From Orion:
Swordfish, the new imprint from The Orion Publishing Group, is celebrating the 30th anniversary of John Gardner’s first James Bond novel with the publication of his first five Bond titles in a highly collectable hardback edition. Featuring the original cover art, the first three titles – Licence Renewed, For Special Services and Icebreaker – will all be published in a distinctive new livery on 23 June 2011 (hardback, £16.99 each/eBook at £8.99). Nobody Lives For Ever and Role Of Honour will follow suit on 7 July 2011 (hardback, £16.99 each/eBook at £8.99). All of John Gardner’s Bond novels will be released in paperback in 2012.

If you’d like to find out more about John Gardner, I recommend a visit to the official website: JohnGardner.com

Jeremy Northam has recorded the first two novels in the series as audiobooks: Licence Renewed and For Special Services. Naturally, yours truly has been having a listen …

Written and set in the 1980’s, in Licence Renewed James Bond is older and times have changed. M is still his boss, but ’00’ status no longer officially exists (though M refuses to acknowledge this), and Bond’s duties are far more mundane. That is, until he is required to return to his old role and save the world, yet again, from a mad genius intent on world domination.

I always think of Bond stories as adult fairy tales, with Bond as our invincible handsome prince on the side of good and all that is right, saving damsels in distress from the big bad wolf. It helps me to accept the casual sexism, xenophobia and general lack of political correctness that are an inescapable part of the best James Bond stories (a reflection of the time they were written). Jeremy plays it straight when it would be easy to colour it with a 2011 perspective, and this helps to create an authenticity and connection with Fleming’s originals, something I never really felt with Sebastian Faulks’ Devil May Care (also read by Jeremy). By doing so, Jeremy also avoids all comparisons with Mike Myers’ extremely successful Bond pastiche, Austin Powers. (Yeah baby!)

Despite being older, James Bond has lost none of his skill, nerve, and prowess with the ladies, though he drinks less and smokes low tar cigarettes (especially made for him, of course).

Bond’s gadgets come from Q branch, as before, but this time via a woman, nicknamed Q’ute. John Gardner was careful to make all of Bond’s gadgets realistic, and he maintained that a Saab with the modifications Bond has installed would have been an option for anyone with the money to afford it.

Bond must stop Anton Murik, Laird of Murcaldy (aided by international terrorist Franco) from taking over six nuclear plants and holding the world to ransom. Needless to say, there is a glamorous Bond girl with an appropriately ludicrous name (Lavender Peacock, known as ‘Dilly’, pronounced with great relish by Jeremy as Bond) and an enormous villain (reminiscent of Jaws) named Caber.

Some of the novel is set in Scotland, and though Jeremy’s ability to create believable, consistent and appropriate voices for his characters is nothing short of amazing, his Scottish accent is a little shaky (I’d be prepared to offer lessons, being from that country myself …), but I am being needlessly picky, and it’s a hell of a lot better than Mel Gibson’s!

It’s a typically tense, fast-paced romp, punctuated by testosterone-fuelled battles, car chases and romantic interludes. Anton Murik is a Bond mad scientist villain who sounds like he could have been played by Charles Gray (I particularly loved Gardner’s description of the mad and dangerous gleam in his eyes resembling lava). Dilly squeals, simpers and looks gorgeous, and of course Bond was always going to come out on top (ahem).

The second novel, For Special Services, picks up where the first left off and is more filmic, thanks to Gardner doing a better job with setting the scene, and, of the two, this was by far my favourite. James Bond is on secret loan to the US government and, teamed with his old friend Felix Leiter’s daughter Cedar (a CIA agent), he must stop legendary secret organisation SPECTRE and their evil leader ‘Blofeld’ who are, of course, up to no good on a grand scale. Blofeld was responsible for killing Bond’s wife Tracy (in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) and was later killed by Bond. Who is the new ‘Blofeld’? We don’t find out for sure until the very end of the book.

Cedar Leiter is a match for Bond, and a forerunner of Halle Berry’s character in Die Another Day. Naturally, she is also very beautiful.

This audiobook really is a Bond film performed entirely by one man and can only be described as a tour de force. There are many plot twists and turns (some of which you’ll see coming), some great set-piece scenes worthy of the best Bond movies, and a large cast of vivid characters, all of which are created with verve and gusto. The New York gangsters, Texan millionaire Markus Bismaquer and skull-faced Walter Luxor (who will make your flesh creep) are characters you’d never believe could possibly spring from Jeremy’s lips, and yet they do, brilliantly. Jeremy has proved, in several audiobooks, that he can successfully perform female characters, but you have never heard anything like the steamy love scene he creates in this book. Much as I’d have loved to be a fly on the wall in the recording studio, perhaps you need to be alone in such circumstances … !

The relationship between Bond and M is rather touching, and Bond and Moneypenny continue to have a little flirt (a scene without which any Bond film is incomplete). This book has everything you could want from a Bond novel, and Orion absolutely picked the right man for the job in Jeremy, with his success as a leading man and his gifts as a character actor.

If you enjoy James Bond (novels or films), you will adore these audiobooks. Laura has written about Jeremy being her ‘intellectualizer‘, introducing her to books, periods of history and other subjects she might not otherwise have felt inspired to explore. In this case, I haven’t been ‘intellectualized’ in the slightest. I’ve had a good, healthy dose of pure entertainment. And why not? After listening to every last syllable of Homage to Catalonia, I think I deserve it!

For Special Services and Licence Renewed, read by Jeremy Northam, are available as CDs and digital downloads (digital download not available in USA) from Orion and a range of audiobook retailers. It is possible that more of John Gardner’s James Bond novels may be released as audiobooks. Orion’s Audio Editor Pandora White told me:

“He did such a good job with the Faulks book and he’s a fantastic reader and the right age and tone of voice.  If these work then yes, we will do more and with Jeremy.”

Let’s hope so!

Many thanks to Louise Court at Orion.

by Gill

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