Sue Arnold on animal audiobooks
The Elephant Keeper, by Christopher Nicholson, read by Roger May (10hrs unabridged, Whole Story Audio, £19.99)
It isn’t often that amid all the indifferent fiction – historical novels especially – I’m offered for review every week, I come upon an absolute gem. Nicholson’s story, set in 1773, about a 15-year-old boy from Somerset employed to take care of a pair of elephants bought by a wealthy Bristol merchant with a vague plan of breeding from them for the lucrative ivory market, defies category. Technically, I suppose, it is a historical novel, but though we’re aware that the events could only have taken place in the late 18th century when most people had never heard of, let alone seen, an elephant, it is the extraordinary relationship between the keeper Tom Page and his charges Timothy and Jenny that had me at times close to tears. Sentimental stuff about mistreated animals, the whole Black Beauty genre, leaves me cold. But Tom’s feelings both for Lizzie, the girl he leaves to follow Jenny to her new owner in Sussex, and (here’s the twist) for Jenny herself are definitely not sentimental. They are sexual. It sounds kinky, but as this strange, yet always completely believable, story unfolds you feel such sympathy for Tom and his varying fortunes, your affection for him never wavers. Until the day on Bristol docks that he encounters Jenny being unloaded along with half a dozen other dead or dying exotic animals – baboon, leopard, zebra – in the crates they have been kept in throughout their three-month voyage from India, he was just the same as the rest of Mr Harrington’s stable boys. Thanks to his father the head groom, he knew more about horses than most, but that was all. But his new duties in the elephant house isolate him from the other staff on the estate. So he bonds with the elephants instead, teaching them to obey simple orders, kneeling, shaking hands with their trunks, and as the relationship blossoms so does his stature and confidence. Apocryphal anecdotes abound. A friend of Mr Harrington’s who once worked in India offers mixed advice about pachyderm welfare, but is better at regaling audiences with graphic eye-witness accounts of, say, how elephants were often used by Maharajas as their official executioners. The condemned man, tied and blindfolded, would first be lashed by its trunk then crushed by one of its feet and finally impaled through the neck with a tusk. How much of this delightful but often darkly disturbing book is based on historical records I don’t know, and frankly it doesn’t matter. The result is a joy.
The Call of the Wild, by Jack London, read by William Roberts (3hrs 40mins unabridged, Naxos, £13.99)
This was the story first published in 1903 that made the struggling writer Jack London famous. Listen to William Roberts’s majestic reading and you will understand why. Set in the 1890s Klondike gold rush, it tells how Buck, a huge wolfhound, is stolen from his pampered Californian home and becomes a sled dog in the arctic wastes of the Yukon. As brutal as his successive masters are, the pack of dogs he is harnessed alongside is even deadlier. How Buck survives the rule of club and fang is a classic, once misguidedly described as a children’s book because it is narrated by a dog. Of course it is an allegory – civilisation versus the old primordial instinct for survival at any price – but for pure excitement and adventure it has no equal.
Secret Songs of Birds: The Hidden Beauty of Birdsong Revealed (64mins, British Library, £9.95)
Enough savagery and violence. Relax and listen to the glorious trilling of the ruby crowned kinglet, the rufus tailed scrubbed robin, the grasshopper warbler and 24 other lesser known songbirds. The ultimate DIY dawn chorus.