When Hamish Macdonald retired from teaching English in the Western Isles 11 years ago, he went out and bought a pile of books. Little did he know they were destined to languish on his bookshelves, unread. For almost immediately, Mr Macdonald woke up one morning and found he could barely see. "It was a blood vessel behind the eye," he says. "The other eye had been bad anyway. But now I couldn't even see to zip up my coat. It was a shock."
Not only did this calamity put paid to his dreams of enjoying all those books, but it also left him unable to read newspapers and magazines, or to keep in touch with his profession through his weekly copy of The TES. Mr Macdonald lives in Dunoon, Argyllshire, but it was a retired teacher from the other end of the British Isles who came to his rescue. David Crawley, who used to teach English and drama at Temple Grove boys' school near Uckfield, East Sussex, is one of a team of 220 volunteers who regularly convert the contents of around 200 publications into audio recordings.
And it's thanks to Mr Crawley and his co-reader, Les Norris, a retired marketing and public relations man, that people with visual and other disabilities are able to sit back and listen to The TES. Every Thursday, Mr Crawley and Mr Norris make their way to the Sussex town of Heathfield, where, in a small industrial unit, the Talking Newspaper Association of the United Kingdom (TNAUK) has its national recording centre. Here, in one of eight tiny, soundproofed rooms, they meet up with studio manager Malcolm Kipling, a former BBC rostrum cameraman, to put together a 90-minute TES tape, which is copied up to 100 times and posted to subscribers as far afield as Barbados and the Netherlands.
Glance briefly through their soundproof window and this reading of printed matter looks a deadly serious business. There is Mr Kipling, listening intently to his headphones while one hand hovers over a bank of controls.
Facing him across the desk are Mr Crawley and Mr Norris, papers spread out before them and a pair of long-armed microphones hanging on their every word. Around them on the walls are pinned an array of official-looking notices. "Guidelines for reading website addresses" says one, while a list of "common Gaelic pronunciations" suggests that "Doighean Eoghain" ought to sound like "Doyen Yawn".
But step inside, after being given the all-clear by Mr Kipling, of course, and you see what Mr Norris means when he describes the job as "rather like being in a very enjoyable club". Mr Crawley, who has been reading for 10 years and whose duties also include two Sunday broadsheets, the Investors Chronicle (of which he claims to understand little) and magazines on wine and cricketing, agrees. "I enjoy myself immensely," he says.
And Mr Norris, who also covers the Times Higher Educational Supplement, the News of the World ("I enjoy that, although describing the photographs can be difficult"), the science journal Nature ("I thought it would be about young ladies romping in the forest, but it actually makes my brain hurt"), and the Christian Herald ("to balance up the News of the World") clearly loves every minute of his reincarnation as a newsreader.
So do they ever get the giggles? "All the time," says Mr Crawley. "When I make a fluff," adds Mr Norris, with perfect timing.
Not that it's all play in front of the microphones. On top of the 16 hours a week reading, Mr Crawley devotes five hours at home to "editing" the Observer and The TES. By the time he arrives at the studio, he has already studied each publication, and comes armed with a list of selected articles, complete with estimated timings - "I measure the columns with a ruler" - and page numbers.
At the start of each recording session, Mr Crawley and Mr Norris divide up the articles between them. Then, after a quick voice level check, Mr Kipling holds up his free hand, and lowers it again to cue in the first reader. When mistakes occur, as they inevitably do, Mr Kipling rewinds the tape to allow the "offender" a second chance. "Two Jags refuse to rise to class baitI " Mr Norris begins, reading from a headline about John Prescott. "Hold it," he says. "That should be 'refuses'. I forgot that Two Jags is one person."
When it comes to describing pictures or cartoons, the pair tend to ad lib.
And if one thinks the other has missed out a crucial detail, he usually says so, while Mr Kipling inches back the tape to allow for the revised wording. It's totally professional, but clearly fun - efficient, but sufficiently relaxed that the personality of each reader comes beaming through the text.
And for a former secondary school head such as Kathleen Jones, who developed an eye condition following an illness and can no longer read print for any length of time, it is just what the doctor ordered. Ms Jones, who lives in the south London borough of Lambeth, retired from teaching six years ago. But her continuing work as a school governor and member of an independent appeals tribunal ensures her need to keep in touch with education is as great as ever. "For someone who has been involved with education most of their life and who now has a visual handicap, the audio version of The TES is very welcome and keeps me in touch with what's going on," she says. "I'm so grateful to have it."
Ms Jones, who also takes the Sunday Telegraph and Choice magazine, likes to listen to the tapes at mealtimes, while Joan Billenness, who lives in Greenford, Middlesex, has her cassette player in the kitchen.
Ms Jones, who works three days a week, is partially sighted and can read with a magnifier, but she finds it a strain and prefers to rely on the tapes. "I have the Times Digest, the Spectator, the Church Times and Private Eye," she says. "The readers are very good. My only regret with The TES is that they don't record the classified advertisements. It's funny, but even when you don't want a job, you always turn to the ads."
Meanwhile, up in Dunoon, Mr Macdonald has more than enough words to cope with, job ads or no. He has 10 publications on tape, which add up to 15 hours of listening time each week. "My wife used to have to read the papers to me before I got up in the mornings," he says. "That led to a bit of trouble, as you can imagine." These days, he sits in an armchair, or listens to The TES in bed. "I find it extremely useful," he says. "I've been listening to it since 1997. The selection is excellent, and I have tremendous admiration for the people who read it. Sometimes, when you're listening to the tape, it's like being there in the room with them."
For a list of publications and subscription details or to make a donation, write to the Talking Newspaper Association of the United Kingdom, Heathfield, East Sussex TN21 8DB. Tel: 01435 866102; fax: 01435 865422; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; website:www.tnauk.org.uk
TALKING NEWSPAPERS: TALES OF THE TAPE
A registered charity, the Talking Newspaper Association of the United Kingdom (TNAUK) was set up in 1974 to provide the blind, visually impaired or otherwise disabled with a means of accessing newspapers and magazines.
Today, the service reaches around 250,000 subscribers, with more than 200 national titles recorded on cassette, and a further 540 local papers recorded by affiliated groups around the UK.
Every year, 2.5 million tapes are sent out from Heathfield, and many titles are also available in computer-compatible formats; these are transmitted by email, or on disk or CD-Rom.
Subscribers pay pound;25 a year to receive their choice of 10 national titles on cassette. The returnable tapes are sent free of postage to blind people under the "Articles for the Blind" concession.
The recording is made on a master tape (the eight studios at Heathfield are in use throughout every weekday), which is used to produce four "sub-masters". These first copies are then put into duplicating machines, which produce 44 copies at a time.
Returned tapes are wiped and their address labels shredded before being fed back into the system.
TNAUK runs a dedicated bulletin board service for subscribers and facilitates IT training for blind and visually impaired people. But it receives no government funding, relying entirely on subscriptions and donations.