Driven to distraction
Poisonous centipedes have not figured largely in the anthropomorphic literature of our children and there is a reason for this, as the listener will discover. But my nearly-seven-year-old loved every nauseating detail, where he would balk at the enjoyable, measured tones of Kate Harper reading Little Women (Penguin Pounds 6.99). Centipedish is a language fit for the birds, mate, just give me four growing girls, the Civil War, feminine aspiration sacrificed at the altar of male action (oh! don't you weep when Jo cuts off her hair!) and the long, slow view of changing social roles which Louisa May Alcott gave us. Two and three quarter hours won't seem a minute too long to any literary type aged 10 and over.
Altogether less successful, though worth it if you can't find any longer versions, are a couple of 80-minute She Children's classics in book and tape sets. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery are two of the great "girls' reads", and, though it is better to meet them here than not at all, it is a shame that so much of the detail which these two writers used has been cut to fit the tapes to the 80-minute format. We miss so much of the funny conversations of quaint Anne and her reluctant adopted parents, of the everyday doings of the New England town and its cantankerous inhabitants. Likewise, sullen Mary's flowering as she discovers the hidden garden on the Yorkshire moors is savagely pruned to make a much simpler, less exacting, tale centring around the recovery of Colin, the invalid heir to Missenden Manor. The dramatisations are reasonable, so the series (Pounds 5.99 each) is good for 8- to 12-year-olds with short attention spans.
For littler children, Lenny Henry's Charlie and the Big Chill (She Pounds 6.99, book and tape) is perfectly delightful. The comedian's mellow tones harmonise with a steel band backing in his child-friendly tale of a little girl swept up by the animating spirits of a supermarket freezer. Joyfully illustrated by Chris Burke, the accompanying book can be read along with the tape. For ages 3-7.
Or you can enjoy 60 minutes of dramatised jolly jinks with the Famous Five, who feature in a series of book and tape sets from Hodder (Pounds 5.99). With titles such as Five Go Off to Camp, Five Fall into Adventure, Five Have Plenty of Fun and Five Go Adventuring Again these have the effect of making adults grind their teeth and think of alternatives like Five Get Laid or Five Go On a Cocaine Binge.
But we are back to that adult-child dichotomy again and the fact that 6- to 11-year-olds of any ethnic group lap up this warmed-over hash of cops 'n' robbers, spies and ghosts, secret passages and scrumptious picnics with as much gusto as if they had actually lived through the Forties and Fifties. The past may, as LP Hartley wrote, be another country but one has to doubt if "government scientists" ever offered to show their "secret formula" to shifty strangers.
But no matter, good triumphs again and that is always a pleasant lesson as yet another maniac cuts you up on the inside lane.