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Listening Corner

OSCAR WILDE'S FAIRY TALES. Age group: 10-plus. Read by Simon Callow. Two cassettes, 2 hours. Hodder Children's Audio, Pounds 7.99.

The best fairy tales have a dark and gothic underside of a quality that today's writers hardly dare to grapple with. In "The Birthday of the Infanta", for example, Oscar Wilde tells the story of a horribly misshapen dwarf who imagines that the selfish young princess is in love with him. Then he catches sight of himself in a mirror, the awful truth dawns and he falls dead on the ground. It is, you might say, a long way from Postman Pat.

The social message is always there, too the rich Infanta has been made heartless by her upbringing; the Happy Prince gives his all to right injustice but has to wait to be rewarded in heaven.

Some of Wilde's language is as difficult as his ideas. And yet juniors, especially able book lovers, will listen raptly, because the writing is tragically beautiful, like a Burne Jones tapestry. "It was a large lovely garden with soft green grass.

"Here and there over the grass stood beautiful flowers like stars, and there were twelve peach trees that in the springtime broke out into delicate blossoms of pink and pearl, and in the autumn bore rich fruit" ("The Selfish Giant").

Simon Callow, of course, has his part in this. His distinctive vocal style, as richly coloured as the words he reads, transmits and makes transparent each narrative twist and emotional change.

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