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Since 1st March, 1999
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Listen to Tennyson reciting Charge of Light Brigade on CD

London, May 8: Early recordings of some of the great figures of English literature reading their work have just been released by the British Museum.

“Aaf-a-lik! Aaf-a-lik!” comes the strident, mechanical voice through the static. “Aaf-a-lik! Onwid!”

It sounds like a dalek attack broadcast on shortwave radio. In fact, it’s the sound of Alfred Lord Tennyson reading The Charge of the Light Brigade on to a wax cylinder more than 100 years ago.

Tennyson’s voice is among those of 46 writers born in the 19th century, which feature on a pair of spoken word compilations released yesterday by the British Library.

The two discs — one of poetry, one prose — include a number of rare and previously unheard recordings of the first literary generation to be so captured. A scratchy recording of Robert Browning’s voice, made in 1889, is part of one of the first sound recordings in existence.

A guest at a dinner party where the newly-invented phonograph had been brought along, he was cajoled into reading How They Brought the Good News From Ghent to Aix but broke off in confusion after a couple of lines.

“I’m [crackle] sorry, but I can’t remember me own vahses!” he shouts. “But one thing I shall remember all me life is the astonishing [crackle crackle] by your wonderful invention. Robert Browning!”

You hear “bravo, bravo”, and a great round of “Hip hip hoorays”.

“A lot of the public don’t realise the voices of these writers survive,” said Richard Fairman, who is in charge of “scholarship and collections” at the sound archive. “While everyone knows the British Library has a huge collection of books, few people realise that our sound archive is one of the largest in the world, with a special section dedicated to drama and literature.”

The process of producing the discs took more than a year. Each recording had to be transferred from wax cylinder, acetate, 78 disc or early magnetic tape, before being “cleaned up” using digital sound engineering technology. With only four of the writers out of copyright, tracking down and obtaining permissions to use the material was a “nightmare”, Fairman added.

Among the rarities included is the only known recording of one of P. G. Wodehouse’s wartime broadcasts from Berlin.

Vita Sackville-West’s reading from a manuscript copy of Orlando, the novel Virginia Woolf dedicated to her, has never before been released.

There is a garbled but just audible recording of France — the only known recording of Kipling reading from his own work; part of an unpublished lecture on drama given, in 1933, by George Bernard Shaw and a recording of J. R. R. Tolkien speaking the “elvish” language he devised for Lord of the Rings.

Introducing The Lake Isle of Innisfree, which he confides was inspired by a soft-drink advert, W. B. Yeats explains: “It gave me the devil of a lot of trouble to get into verse the poems that I am about to read, and that is why I will not read them as if they were prose.” He almost sings the lines.

Equally of interest are the asides and introductions: Hugh MacDiarmid talks a baffled audience through a couple of short poems in impenetrable Scottish; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, discussing the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, discloses that he regularly received correspondence addressed to the fictional detective, including one proposal of marriage.

The recordings — arranged in order of birthdate — range from Shaw to Noel Coward, and from Robert Browning to Robert Graves, who was born six years after Browning made his recording.

Among other tracks are the high buoyant singing of Hilaire Belloc; the New England sonority of Robert Frost; the captivating rumble of the Welsh poet David Jones and the nonsense incantations of Gertrude Stein.

There is T. S. Eliot reading Prufrock and Edith Sitwell piping from Facade to music.

There’s even Ezra Pound playing the kettledrum.

As Kipling said in a 1933 lecture included in this compilation: “It is only words, nothing but words that live, to show the present how men worked and thought in the past.”

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