Good writing matures in the cask. Down and Out in Paris and London, which was George Orwell's first published book, seems alarmingly relevant today.
Penguin's double-tape adaptation (Pounds 7.99) is read with burning conviction by Michael Maloney. Written in the late Twenties, the book charts Orwell's hopeless search for work, after a voluntary abnegation of the privilege to which he was born. He describes his miserable existence in bug-infested rooms, Cox-and-boxing to save a few sous, always hungry, often filthy, and pawning most of his clothes. At last he finds work in a hotel, which involves unbroken 17-hour days in revolting kitchens, where cockroaches proliferate in breadbins.
This was Paris, but London was worse. Orwell delivers a stinging attack on the laws of the day under which the police were expected to wake up vagrants and move them on; in Paris he had at least been left undisturbed.
In conclusion, he declares that he will never again enjoy a meal in a smart restaurant: he would be too aware of the below-stairs degradation, which rots both body and soul.
Charlotte Bront 's first book was also inspired by a hop across the Channel. The Professor, which was initially rejected and only published posthumously, is the lightly fictionalised account of experiences which she later drew on to write Villette. Read by Juliet Stevenson with her customary skill, this story has a male narrator. Its protagonist teaches in a girls' boarding school where he flirts with the headmistress, falls in love with a pupil, and is thwarted by the jealously scheming older woman. The prose is elegant, but the happy ending seems contrived. Its original rejection provoked Bront to write something infinitely better (Penguin Pounds 7.99, two tapes).
Teaching is always best done with laughter, and Bill Bryson is a past master at this art. In The Lost Continent (Chivers Pounds 31.95, eight tapes; available by direct mail from Freephone 0800 136919), Bryson chooses, after a 10-year exile in England, to drive 14,000 miles through 38 American states, in search of the small-town life he loved as a boy. This is a sad but funny account of his discovery that the idiosyncratic life he once knew has vanished. In its place is a tasteless jumble of superstores and fast-food chains, with all character obliterated by greed.
P J O'Rourke is the other, meaner, face of contemporary American travel-writing. The two tapes that comprise Holidays in Hell (Reed Audio Pounds 7.99) are read adroitly by William Hootkins. This dare-devil buccaneer dodges bullets, enjoys riots, and bluffs his way through checkpoints in search of exciting alternatives to conventional tourism. Call him crass, call him crude, he is undeniably funny. And he's obliquely very informative on how people cope with situations worse than the average European's wildest nightmare. Orwell would not have approved, but he would have listened with great interest.