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Ukemi Audiobooks September 2020


To be frank, this was not premeditated! Political events seem to dominate the thoughts of many countries and individuals at this moment with the imminent US election and Covid-19, both of which are having a considerable impact on world stability. And, unfortunately, they are also affecting the feelings and perception of stability and security of many individuals.

Curiously, these two historic political documents, which made such strong impressions on the thoughts and minds of people at the time of their publication, come, in a way, from opposite sides of the political spectrum, and I suppose reflect the ever-changing circumstances of political life.

Enquiry Concerning Political Justice was published in 1793 in the wake of the American War of Independent and the French Revolution. In it, Godwin questioned the established order of society, and proposed a more equal society, with its central message or theme being that of the potential for human perfectibility through the pursuit of reason and truth. Godwin (1756-1836), the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft and the father of Mary Shelley, lived very much within a liberal milieu. In this revolutionary book, he proposed a different view of society and which was later highlighted as perhaps the first book to present a form of anarchism. It was met with ‘delighted excitement’ by many, including the Romantic poets. It appeared in a moment of great optimism, when there was a sense that the major changes that had taken place could lead to sweeping reforms; furthermore, there was optimism that the traditional antagonisms and hostilities between England and France would soon come to an end. Godwin argued for change and the abolition of ancient abuses of privilege and inequality. However, despite the fact that Godwin argued for change through education and reason, not violence, attitudes hardened following the execution of Louis XVI and the excesses of the Terror. The mood darkened and his proposal for a new basis for society was rejected. Yet his book remains a pivotal document in the history of political change.

The English Constitution is a very different matter. Written in 1867 by the journalist and political commentator Walter Bagehot, it is one of the great political classics as it surveys how and why the famously unwritten English Constitution came to be, and what it represented at that moment in time. In fact, that moment in time was momentous! For it was published in the very year when the 1867 Reform Act enfranchised a far wider portion of English Society, forcing Bagehot to release a second edition with an introduction essay incorporating his view on the likely effects of the changes. These were not always forward-looking or optimistic – he sounds warnings of the effect of giving a greater proportion of the working class the vote. Nevertheless, the main essay on The English Constitution is an admirable document, written with clarity and elegance: it surveys the principal elements of the political structure existing at the time. Listening to it now shows how little, in essence, has changed. It is divided into nine chapters, including The Cabinet, The Monarchy, The House of Lords, The House of Commons, and Its Supposed Checks and Balances. But Bagehot is illuminating also in a vibrant comparison of the differences between the unwritten English Constitution and the written American Constitution. It is a fascinating listen.

Nicolas Soames

Ukemi Audiobooks September 2020

Ukemi Audiobooks September 2020

The four new recordings being added to the Ukemi Audiobooks list this month continue along paths set by earlier releases. Once embarked upon an author or a topic, I find it worthwhile and illuminating to answer the question: ‘What next?’

The enormous undertaking that was Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica demands, insists even, continuation. And Volume 2 (Part I of Part II, Prima Secundae) is even more fascinating because one of the most influential medieval intellects in the Catholic tradition casts his net over wider philosophical waters than in the opening Part. The topics include Treatise on Human Acts, Treatise on Habits, and Treatise on Law, in which Aquinas discusses his subjects in human as well as theological terms. Martyn Swain’s reading is as steady and as clear as always.

His distinctive reading style is prominent in the second Ukemi recording of Martin Heidegger: Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics. This controversial evaluation of Kant was published in 1929, two years after the ground-breaking Being and Time, and is widely regarded as a supplement to the work which first established Heidegger’s international reputation.

The third new recording is completely different. Ukemi began its series on the early Arthurian texts with The Mabinogion, the 12/13th century compilation of Welsh stories of the events and personalities surrounding the court of Caerlleon – drawing on ancient tales and legends. Then came Four Arthurian Romances by Chrétien de Troyes, the French trouvère who laid the foundations for the continental accounts of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Now, after many requests, Ukemi presents Perceval – The Story of the Grail, which is arguably the single most important Arthurian romance, containing as it does the very first mention of the mysterious Grail. Nigel Bryant, translator of many Medieval French texts, has brought together not only the original Chrétien accounts, but also the four main Continuations. Chrétien died before he could complete his story, and the Continuations, most notably by Gerbert de Montreuil, present the story of Perceval and the Grail in its rich final form. Bryant presents all Chrétien’s work, and then the major key sections of the Continuations, offering précis of passages which are of narrative but less literary importance. It is engagingly read by Mike Rogers.

The fourth ‘new’ title this month isn’t completely new…Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations read by Michael Lunts was actually released on Audible in April, but for some unaccountable reason (human error!) was missed during subsequent Ukemi website updates. Acknowledged as the first book of modern political economy, there are, not surprisingly, a number of unabridged recordings now available. Those who know Michael Lunts’ very approachable and admirably clear reading style from his many Ukemi recordings will need no special persuasion!!! It is also another ‘continuation’ for it follows Lunts’ widely admired recording of Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, (released in 2018) which is decorated by numerous 5 stars on Audible.

Nicolas Soames

20 August 2020

Ukemi Audiobooks July 2020

Ukemi Audiobooks July 2020

A year ago or so, a number of correspondents wrote to me suggesting Summa Theologica, the momentous 13th century survey of Catholic theology by Thomas Aquinas, which, down the ensuing years, became a cornerstone of Western philosophy as well. I blinked. After all, it is huge – 2 million words which, in audiospeak, amounts to over 200 hours.

BUT – it is such an important work. I had closer look. It is divided neatly into four major parts (Part 1, Part 1 of Part 2, Part 2 of 2 and Part 3). That breaks down into fairly manageable volumes. And it would clearly grace the Ukemi catalogue! I was also fascinated to see how whether the final volume would attract loyal listeners. So, we set to work!

Aquinas set out to look at and comment on the theological teachings of the Catholic Church as he knew it. It had accrued a massive literature through the centuries – not just the Old and New Testaments, but the voluminous writings of Augustine of Hippo, Boethius, Dionysius the Areopagite, Anselm of Canterbury, and many more Christian writers. He extended his purview to Hebrew thinkers, including Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish philosopher. Most boldly and controversially, he drew on other traditions – crucially the philosophy of Ancient Greece and Rome (he calls Aristotle ‘The Philosopher’), as well as Plato and Cicero; and Arab writers and translators including Avicenna, Averroes and Al-Ghazali.

Furthermore, he developed a simple framework which he applied consistently throughout the work:

  • A question is proposed;
  • This is then considered under a variety of headings called Articles;
  • Objections are raised;
  • Aquinas then replies to those objections.

Throughout he refers to many authorities but makes his stance and view very clear.

Wide-ranging throughout, each Part does have a general emphasis: Part 1 emphasises theology, Part 2 emphasises ethics, Part 3 Christ.

Summa Theologica is, of course a major undertaking for a reader…and Martyn Swain – English born but resident in Cape Town – has risen to the challenge. A veteran simultaneous translator (French and German) for many international organisations, (he translated for Nelson Mandela during interviews for French radio), Swain has proved a natural audiobook reader with many recordings for Ukemi Audiobooks.

There is also the remarkable coincidence in the siting of this recording in Swain’s private studio in Cape Town. Father Laurence Shapcote of the Dominican order (Aquinas was a Dominican) who undertook the translation of the complete work in the first half of the 20th century, was born in South Africa (the son of a missionary) and lived there for much of his lifeHe translated this immense work on his own in Boksburg, Newcastle and Stellenbossch, undaunted by the immense learning involved in the project. A modest man, he requested that this translation was attributed to ‘the Fathers of the English Dominican Province.

Summa Theological Volume 2 (Prima Secundae) is scheduled for release in August.

Two other new titles have been released this month. Though best known for his ‘Parallel Lives’ Plutarch’s Moralia, his collection of essays, have always been enjoyed for their variety, their quiet wisdom and their wit. Now, Matthew Lloyd Davies presents, with his inimitable informal tone, a second volume, with essays ranging from ‘Were Athenians  more famous in War or in Wisdom’ to ‘Sayings of Kings and Commanders’ and ‘Bravery of Women.’

And Michael Lunts, after Nietzsche and Adam Smith, turns to 20th century philosophy, to read Time and Free Will by Henri Bergson, who takes a very different view from the existential stance of Heidegger. In effect Bergson asserts that free will is a fact. For Bergson intuition is experience in action and entering into the thing or state, empathy, is the way to absolute, rather than relative knowledge.

The Ukemi recording made by Mike Rogers, of William Langland’s sparking medieval poem Piers Plowman in the modern verse rendering by Charles Arthur Burrell has been very favourable reviewed in The Times by Christina Hardyment. Click here for the review.

Nicolas Soames

23 July 2020

Ukemi Audiobooks May 2020

Ukemi Audiobooks May 2020

The world premiere audiobook recording of Thomas Mann’s masterpiece, The Magic Mountain.

David Rintoul

Ever since the release of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks read for Ukemi Audiobooks by David Rintoul and released in October 2016 I have received a steady stream of emails and exhortations for Mann’s unquestionable masterpiece, The Magic Mountain. It is the story of a sanatorium in the Alps for sufferers of tuberculosis ­– the Covid-19 of its day. And therefore there can scarcely be a more apposite time to present this world premiere unabridged recording in a master-reading by the aforesaid David Rintoul. It is now available on Audible.

However, TB and the sanatorium in Davos (!!) is only the backdrop to the book. It is essentially, a bildungsroman, a story about the maturation of a young man over a period of years. Hans Castorp, in his early twenties, goes to visit a friend in the sanatorium for a few weeks, but his residency extends far further than that. He arrives a naïve, would-be shipbuilder, but his encounters with the various long-term and short-term patients, residents and medical staff, and his immersion in the sanatorium’s regular routine, affect and influence him in unexpected ways. His view of life (and death) broadens.

Mann started writing The Magic Mountain shortly before WW1, but didn’t finish it until 1924…and it propelled his career to the inevitable Nobel Prize in 1929.

David and I wanted to go into the recording studio very soon after Buddenbrooks to follow it up with The Magic Mountain but issues with audio rights and copyright required patience. Finally, with the support of the publishers Knopf in the US, the audio rights to the latest and much-admired translation by John E. Woods were agreed and signed at the start of this year.

Of course, David is a busy actor and audiobook reader, and couldn’t go straight into the studio…not least because he wanted time to study and prepare. The Magic Mountain is one of the greatest works of 20th century literature, along with Ulysses and Proust, and was not a book to sight-read. It is complex, multi-layered and subtle. David had scheduled a holiday in Sri Lanka in February after an intensive period of work. He said it would give him the perfect opportunity to prepare, concentrating soley on the book. He would prepare on the beach, by the pool, in the balmy evenings…which is exactly what he did. But first, he wanted to deal with all the pronunciations – names and places and whatnot in various European languages. When he returned, he showed me him prep pages…there were 887 lines, dealing not only with the languages, but technical words, notes on characters and situations and so on…Diligent is not the word for it.

So, one Monday early in March, we went for the first day to the Camden studios of the Royal National Institute for the Blind in London…top-class studios used by many commercial audiobook labels, as well as for the charity itself. We did the first day…and then Covid-19 descended like a thunderbolt. It was quite clear, with me taking daily trains and tubes from Hertfordshire, and David on public transport from Chelsea, that unless we were VERY lucky, we could end up in a medical establishment. But not in the Alps. And, er, sorry to reveal this David, but we both know all about three score years and ten – though David is extremely fit.

So, with great regret, I postponed…and then came up with another solution. ID Audio, a group of audiobook studios where we have both worked in the past, is in a gated office complex in West London. I lived in somewhat isolated circumstances in Herts. I could drive. David could drive. The studios were closed, but they kindly agreed to let us go in on the weekends, when no-one else was around – and the two of us could be separated – for most of the time – by the studio glass.

Thomas Mann

And so the recording of Mann’s masterpiece progressed. We extended the weekend by a day here, and a day there. We became increasingly engrossed in the enclosed community in Davos a century ago. Did the air and atmosphere in ID Audio feel alpine? The tumultuous intellectual battles of Lodovico Settembrini and Leo Naphta as they sought to influence the young Castorp – politically, ethically, artistically and even spiritually – spun their webs around us. The seductive allure of Clavdia Chauchat was evident. What a novel!

Outside, the world seemed in turmoil with coronavirus. We could not record this at home – we had to go to the studio – and the book itself demanded to be finished. March went into April and we lived in a kind of hermetic bubble (hoping anyway!!!!). People died of tuberculosis. Disappointment, tragedy, humour, love and seduction…We watched (or rather David recorded) the changes to Hans Castorp as the years passed.

The studio remained largely empty, so we had the space and time and quiet to try and do justice to the book. And then it was finished. It was a wrap! Onwards to a fine restaurant to celebrate? NO! not possible! We bowed, or did we clink elbows. Can’t remember. Then we went our solitary ways…

The editing and proofing process followed down in Bristol, handled by the immensely experienced Ken Barton and his proofer Tess. In a way Tess was our first audience – and her response was unequivocal.

An amazing, powerful, multi-layered novel – so many huge themes, but also engaging and hilarious, with fantastic characters. I was with David Rintoul for every second of the journey – he brings out every nuance of the text…one of the greatest books of early twentieth century…

As soon as it went live on Audible, I emailed many of the correspondents who had asked for it, from all over the world…and quite a few came back by return of mail, all welcoming it, saying how much they hoped it would come one day.

So that is the Ukemi story of The Magic Mountain. Ukemi is now in its fifth year, and has approaching 130 recordings…with another 26 on Dharma Audiobooks, its sister label dedicated to Buddhist audiobooks. On Ukemi, The Magic Mountain was preceded by Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship  read by the accomplished Leighton Pugh – It is arguably the first bildungsroman, so it was appropriate it should be followed by Mann’s masterpiece.

And I see that another massive Ukemi project, the first part of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica has just gone on sale on Audible…

But more of that anon.

Nicolas Soames

17 May 2020



Nicolas SoamesThe advent of the audiobook, and in particular the more recent development of digital download, has transformed the lives of many people. For many years the medium was widely regarded (often rather patronisingly) as a convenience for the visually impaired, forgetting that EVERYBODY listened to (and loved) the radio! Even now, occasionally, I come across this ill-educated view – and I normally respond by saying that ‘Yes – in the same way that printed books are for the hard of hearing.’

What they seem to have forgotten is that for centuries, for millions, the spoken word was the principal medium for ‘books’ of all kinds – from the Buddhist Pali Canon and the Bible to Jane Austen and Dickens. People sat around on those long winter evenings while one person read to them. It is actually a very pleasant experience to be read to, especially when the reader is accomplished.

Technology, the 20th century and recording changed that. First of all, it was music that dominated the new world of recording. But in the second half of the 20th century a few spoken world publishing pioneers began to champion the medium.

The foundation stone of spoken word recordings was laid in the US by two remarkable women, Barbara Holdridge and Marianne Roney, who, mesmerised by the writing and performance of the Welsh poet and broadcaster Dylan Thomas, persuaded him to record A Child’s Christmas in Wales and a collection of his poems. It was issued on LP in 1952 on the Caedmon label. Many other leading poets of the time followed him into the studio: Robert Frost, W H Auden, T. S Eliot, and actors too, including Siobhán McKenna, Michael Redgrave, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Albert Finney and Laurence Olivier.

In the UK, the legendary figure of Harley Usill, whom I once had the pleasure to meet, was one such person. He believed unwaveringly in the spoken word: he started Argo Records in the 1950s and ran it, despite many financial difficulties, into the 1970s. It is because of his commitment that we have classic recordings by Richard Burton, Ted Hughes, Patrick Wymark, Carleton Hobbs ands and many others. He also recorded all the plays of Shakespeare, and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (in Middle English – a remarkable achievement in terms of performance, scholarship and integrity).

If LPs were the first principal carriers of spoken word, the introduction of the ‘compact cassette’ or ‘musicassette’ in the early 1960s prompted an expansion of the spoken word – especially with the inclusion of the cassette player, in addition to the radio, in cars. With the listener able to pick up where s/he stopped on a previous journey, the range of spoken word recordings expanded, especially in abridged forms. However annoying cassettes could be, with tapes breaking or running wild in machines, the format retained a loyalty which continued deep into the CD era. This was not least because, however perfect for music, the limitations of bookmarking on a CD (restricted to track points) made often for a clumsy spoken word experience.

During the last couple of decades of the 20th century, there were two important developments. The first was the gradual adoption, on both sides of the Atlantic, of the word ‘audiobook’ to replace ‘spoken word’ which began to sound increasingly old-fashioned. And then there was the appearance of digital downloads – and the coming of Audible.

Audible’s first appeared in 1998. Its recordings had a primitive sound quality (a low bitrate was necessary to allow for slow download speeds!), and this was before the appearance of the iPod. But the perspicacious founder, Don Katz, steered his company past many problems into the safe haven of the iPod era (which was first launched  in 2001) and under the umbrella of Amazon (who bought Audible in 2008 for a reputed $300 million). In the intervening years, the audiobook catalogue offered by Audible has risen to some 150,000 titles, with the bulk of sales coming from unabridged titles.

The technical leaps played an enormous part in the growth of the audiobook. But what is equally astonishing has been the breadth of the catalogue. Spoken word recordings were made, for many years, by people who were rooted in the classics, or certainly in the more ‘educated’ area of literature. Shakespeare, Chaucer, poetry, the literary classics – these were subjects that Harley Usill, Barbara Holdridge and Marianne Roney presumed people would want to buy and listen to repeatedly at home. They saw their customers sitting around the radiogram, listening to the great works of literature performed by classical actors.

But the world-wide digital age has greatly expanded that audience. Now, generally, people expect to listen to a title just once – the classic path of pulp fiction – and only a few favoured titles will find their way back into PLAY mode again. VERY popular fiction, How To texts, comedy, re-cycled radio shows (some of them classics in their own right) celebrity biographies and popular histories now dominate.

However, there is still room – and need – for the important works of the past, the grat classics – texts which have stood the test of time and which grow with repeated listening by people who themselves grow with further understanding and appreciation. There are recordings of Austen, Shakespeare, Dickens in abundance; there are hugely stimulating non-fiction titles, both recent publications and classics such as The Decline of Fall of the Roman Empire.

Yet there are still thousands of major classics – fiction and non-fiction – which remain to be recorded and made available.

And it is to this area of the audiobook catalogue that Ukemi Audiobooks is purposed to contribute. I hope the recordings will be clear, stimulating, lively – and entertaining too, for the great classics should never be dull! You may remember that delightful series of illustrated magazines for children, Listen and Learn. Well, Ukemi Audiobooks is happy, and unashamed, to adopt that exhortation, only adding, ‘and Enjoy’ as well!

I have a clear programme of works for the coming year– but I welcome ideas of texts that you would like to listen to, that are not available, or available only in poor recordings for reason of performance or other. The titles can be long, short, popular, obscure – just quality works which sustain repeated listening. Just email me here!


Nicolas Soames

March 2016