I now listen to audiobooks now with heightened respect for whoever has done the reading. Photo: Getty
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Tracey Thorn’s audiobook diary: plentiful bananas, dry mouth and self-doubt

Recording your own book is an unexpected feat of endurance.

I love an audiobook. I listen while I’m walking and find that thrillers are a particularly good spur to exercise. With a Tana French, Jo Nesbø or Gillian Flynn on the go, I’m desperate to find out what happens next, so I pound the streets, headphones clamped on, lost in the plot.

I’ve got my preferred readers, too, as the narrator can make or break a book. My favourites include Sam West reading The Day of the Triffids and his dad, Tim, reading Trollope; or Patricia Hodge bringing Nancy Mitford to life. Katherine Kellgren, who I encountered via Liza Klaussmann’s Tigers in Red Weather, has a voice of such beauty that it is a sensual pleasure to have her murmuring in your ear. Tina Fey and David Sedaris, for their part, have both recorded audiobooks that are even funnier than the versions printed on paper.

You might think listening to a book is easier than reading, maybe even cheating, but it requires concentration. No flicking back, going: “Who’s that again? Have we met him before?” No sliding your eye over boring descriptions of landscape or weather. Listening is unabridged – you hear every word – but a skilful narrator makes the actual job of reading sound like a breeze, and, as I now know, this is not the case at all.

I’m in the studio this week reading my new book, Naked at the Albert Hall, and as I learned last year when recording Bedsit Disco Queen, it is a feat of endurance. You start in the morning and spend the first hour in your sealed, soundproofed booth getting warmed up, clearing your throat, and being told to slow down. In hour two you settle into a kind of rhythm and things start to flow, although at that point you begin to notice things about this book you’ve written. Reading aloud highlights every flaw, every clumsy construction; you hear how you could have phrased it better. Occasionally you think, hang on, is that true, is that what I really meant?

By the third hour it’s getting towards lunchtime and your stomach starts to rumble. This picks up on the mike, so the producer interrupts you after every growl to reread the last sentence, until after a while you have to stop and have a banana. Hour four flies by. You look at your watch and can’t believe the time, but your voice is getting husky and so you have a cup of something, preferably not tea or coffee, which will speed you up.

Hour five, your tongue starts to become clumsy in your mouth, as it does when you’re drunk. The saliva is drying up, so your mouth opens with a click every time you speak. The remedy for this is a green apple, so you eat a green apple, whether you want it or not. God, the amount of things you’ve eaten and drunk so far, just in order to read a book. Who knew?

Day two, you do it all again. You realise that the hard part isn’t the vocal tiredness but the concentration; the way in which – however slowly and clearly you try to read – the words seem to be speeding up on the page, rushing and rising towards you like the road in an arcade driving game. You stumble and falter. You have another banana. You hit a word you don’t know how to pronounce, someone’s name, maybe, which you’ve casually written but never said. You realise what a pretentious idiot you’ve been for writing a book that refers to Gramsci and Tannhäuser. But then again, it turns out you’re not sure how to pronounce “privacy”, or “inherently”, or “Deborah Kerr” either, so really you shouldn’t have written a book at all.

All in all, it’s hilariously exhausting, for something that sounds so easy. I listen to audiobooks now with a new sense of awe and heightened respect for whoever has done the reading. As I stagger to the end of my third day and finally turn the last page, I realise I am lucky to be able to escape and I can’t help thinking of Tony Last in Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, held captive by the crazed Mr Todd, forced to read over and over again the complete works of Dickens. It’s always struck me as something of a nightmare ending for a book, but now – brrrr – it seems even more so.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn

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Shami Chakrabarti’s fall from grace: how a liberal hero lost her reputation

Once, it was trendy to say you liked the former director of Liberty. No longer.

It might be hard to remember now, but there was a time when it was trendy to like Shami Chakrabarti. In the mid-2000s, amid the Iraq War backlash and the furore over identity cards, speaking well of the barrister and head of the human rights campaign group Liberty was a handy way of displaying liberal credentials. She was everywhere: Question Time, Desert Island Discs, Have I Got News For You. A young indie band from Worcester called the Dastards was so keen on her that it even wrote a song about her. It included the lyric: “I turn on my TV/The only one I want to see/Is Shami Chakrabarti.”

The daughter of Bengali immigrants, Chakrabarti was born and brought up in the outer-London borough of Harrow, where she attended a comprehensive school before studying law at the London School of Economics. Her background was a great strength of her campaigning, and during the most authoritarian years of New Labour government she burnished her reputation.

Fast-forward to 13 September 2016, when Chakrabarti made her House of Lords debut as a Labour peer. Baroness Chakrabarti of Kennington wore a sombre expression and a rope of pearls looped round her throat beneath her ermine robe. It was hard to recognise the civil liberties campaigner who was once called “an anarchist in a barrister’s wig” by Loaded magazine.

Yet Chakrabarti has also been cast in another role that is far less desirable than a seat in the Lords: that of a hypocrite. On 29 April this year, Jeremy Corbyn announced that Chakrabarti would chair an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party. The inquiry was prompted by the suspensions of Naz Shah, the MP for Bradford West, and Ken Livingstone, for making offensive remarks that were condemned as anti-Semitic. On 16 May Chakrabarti announced that she was joining Labour to gain members’ “trust and confidence”. She said that she would still run the inquiry “without fear or favour”.

The Chakrabarti inquiry delivered its findings on 30 June at a press conference in Westminster. The atmosphere was febrile – there were verbal clashes between the activists and journalists present, and the Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was reduced to tears. The report stated that Labour “is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism” but that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere”. It listed examples of “hateful language” and called on party members to “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons”. Many Labour supporters were surprised that the report’s 20 recommendations did not include lifetime bans for members found to have shown anti-Semitic behaviour.

Then, on 4 August, it was revealed that Chakrabarti was the sole Labour appointment to the House of Lords in David Cameron’s resignation honours. Both Chakrabarti and Corbyn have denied that the peerage was discussed during the anti-Semitism inquiry. But critics suggested that her acceptance undermined the report and its independence.

In particular, it attracted criticism from members of the UK’s Jewish community. Marie van der Zyl, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “This ‘whitewash for peerages’ is a scandal that surely raises serious questions about the integrity of Ms Chakrabarti, her inquiry and the Labour leadership.” A home affairs select committee report into anti-Semitism in the UK has since found that there were grave failings in the report for Labour.

Two further incidents contributed to the decline in Chakrabarti’s reputation: her arrival on Corbyn’s front bench as shadow attorney general and the revelation that her son attends the selective Dulwich College, which costs almost £19,000 a year in fees for day pupils (£39,000 for full boarders). She said that she “absolutely” supports Labour’s opposition to grammar schools but defended her choice to pay for selective education.

Chakrabarti told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “I live in a nice big house and eat nice food, and my neighbours are homeless and go to food banks. Does that make me a hypocrite, or does it make me someone who is trying to do best, not just for my own family, but for other people’s families, too?”

This was the end for many of those who had respected Chakrabarti – the whisper of hypocrisy became a roar. As the Times columnist Carol Midgley wrote: “You can’t with a straight face champion equality while choosing privilege for yourself.”

Hypocrisy is a charge that has dogged the left for decades (both Diane Abbott and Harriet Harman have fallen foul of the selective school problem). The trouble with having principles, it is said, is that you have to live up to them. Unlike the right, the left prizes purity in its politicians, as Jeremy Corbyn’s squeaky-clean political image shows. Shami Chakrabarti started the year with a campaigning reputation to rival that of the Labour leader, but her poor decisions have all but destroyed her. It’s difficult to recall a time when a liberal icon has fallen so far, so fast. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood