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November 2005




John Banville - picture courtesy Macmillan BooksThe literary world abounds with prizes and presentations throughout the year but few are more sought after by fiction writers than the Man Booker Prize, awarded each year for the best novel from an author from the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland. On 10th October, the 2005 Booker Prize, worth £50,000 to the winning author, was awarded to John Banville for his novel, The Sea.

Irish born Banville is an established author who previously reached the Booker short-list in 1989 for The Book of Evidence. The Sea was selected, by a panel of judges chaired by John Sutherland, from a short-list which also included novels from Julian Barnes, Sebastian Barry, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ali Smith and Zadie Smith. The decision was a close one, with the Chairman - who said the experience was akin to "Evel Knievel preparing to jump over the Grand Canyon" - having to use his casting vote, relegating Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go to second place.

A few days later on 13th October the Swedish Academy announced that Harold Pinter was the winner of the equally prestigious and decidedly richer Nobel Prize for Literature. The citation states that Pinter "...in his plays uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression's closed rooms". The British playwright's long career includes a clutch of classic plays such as The Caretaker and The Room which highlight the banality of brutality.

Pinter, who had no idea he was in consideration for the Prize, will receive £730,000 to go along with the prestigious title. An outspoken critic of the Government's position on Iraq - he published a volume of anti-war poetry in 2003 and joined calls for Tony Blair's impeachment at year later - Pinter remains one of Britain's most influential writers.

With all these prizes around, the recent YouGov poll on book buying pattern is timely. One in three book buyers in London and South-East admitted to buying a particular book "solely to look intelligent". Commissioned by BAA and the Expedia travel website to highlight their own travel books award, the poll revealed that "the latest literary pressure is keeping up Ö Bookshelf contents are fast becoming as studied and planned as outfits as a way to impress others". The results also suggest that few actually read the dress-to-impress books they buy: only one in a hundred had read Andrea Levy's Small Island, recently named as the best Orange Prize winner ever.

Earlier another bastion of the English theatre, actor and author Alan Bennett, must have put himself in the running for an award from independent booksellers and defenders of the traditional high street alike. Speaking at The Times Cheltenham Literary Festival, Bennett urged those thinking of buying Untold Stories, a volume of his diaries, to purchase from independent booksellers and avoid chain store retailers such as Waterstones and the online retailer, Amazon to prevent "identikit" high streets and homogenous book selections.  


Rupert the Bear moves to new media home

Express Newspapers have sold 85 year old Rupert to ER (Entertainment Rights), a UK media group.

ER intend to give Rupert a make over before re-launching him, with a tan and a curvier look, as well as with trainers instead of boots although he keeps his trademark checks and red jumper. He will have a new set of friends via an animated TV series, DVDs and books. Under the deal Express Newspaper will retain a stake, and Rupert will continue to appear in their papers. 


A whimsical Phil James (Uncle Phil's Books) presents:
'A snapper-up of unconsidered trifles'
(not recommended for fans of Austen, Dickens, Bunyan et alÖ)

I canít begin to tell you tell you how relieved I am. Itís as if a lifetimeís burden has been lifted from my aching shoulders by an uncharacteristically benevolent angel. Itís as if several billion prime brain cells have been released from decades of worry duty and can be recycled into concerning themselves with things pleasant, like sex, or food, or Lesley Garrett; or can be sent as cannon fodder up to the front line next time I go on a bender. Itís as if my personal Road to Damascus has instantaneously sprouted high-tech twenty-first century halogen street-lighting.

But maybe Iíd better explain.

For many years now, Iíve kept a Commonplace Book. Well - maybe Ďbookí is slightly too precise a term - what I have is a hotchpotch of ill-assorted bits of paper, scrawled with notes and filed all over the place; yellowing photcopies; articles excised from newspapers and mags; several scruffy notebooks that contain not only literary nuggets, but everything from recipes to out-of-date phone numbers for people I canít remember ever having met, to details of the dayís take for an Antique Fair I did in Builth Wells in 1983; a library full of books with grubby, crumpled, fading Post-it notes doing duty as bookmarks; and a vague but rapidly deteriorating idea as to where I can lay my hands on some juicy morsel of literary merit that first tickled my fancy in 1954 or thereabouts.

So a couple of weeks ago I decided that the time had come for a major rationalisation programme. Iíd enter the whole bang shoot onto my computer, neatly filed, referenced and cross-indexed. Tidiness is all.

A major task, this, but Iím getting there. Another six months should do it. No sweat, apart from a minor case of keyboard wrist and a strong possibility of terminal eyestrain. Iím even learning to read my own handwriting, a skill which has defeated me since I was five years old. And O the joy of re-discovering little gems that havenít seen the light of day since I first read them in my teens, and have been misquoting from memory ever since.

But it wasnít until I came across (after a good twenty years lying fallow at the bottom of a cardboard box) a parody of Pride and Prejudice written in the style of Dylan Thomas (by a comic genius called Stanley Sharpless), that it hit me. Bingo!

Iím never, ever, ever again going to have to force myself to attempt Jane Austen!

I have her Complete Works sitting on my bookshelf. Well, you do, donít you. Theyíve been there for years, glowering guilt at me from every virgin spine. And every so often, in a flush of misguided virtue, Iíve taken down P&P (I always start with P&P, for some reason) and tried to sneak into it. I can quote you the first sentence off by heart, but I donít think Iíve ever got past the second page. Because frankly, the woman is sooooo boring. Itís her prissy, decaffeinated, anaemic style that induces chronic ennui, not the stories per se, which arenít bad - after all, they work beautifully on television or on film - but , goodness me, itís dull stuff to read. And having managed without for sixty years, I suddenly realised that I donít need to make the attempt any more. Yippeeee!

But it gets better, because of course the tedium quotient doesnít only apply to St Jane. Sheís just the tip of the wossname. For starters, I can dump dismal Dickens, piecemeal. Another example of the camera being mightier than the pen. If I feel a Dickens coming on Iíll rent a video of Oliver - at least the tunes are good. I can bin a busload of boring Brontes. I can slap ĎNot Wanted on Voyageí labels onto all twelve turgid volumes of Gibbonís so-called masterpiece. I can consign Carlyle to deserved oblivion. I can trash great screeds of Milton - any good book of quotations will serve to supply a compilation album of the best bits - ďMiltís Greatest HitsĒ, as it were. I can leave Bunyanís Pilgrim to Progress unaided and unread. I can forswear Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Sir Walter-Scott-Fitzgerald, all those interminable Russian novels where everybody has at least three different sets of names and you have to draw up a genealogical flowchart as you go along so as to remember whoís doing what to whom, and why. I can quit trying to struggle through Garcia Lorca. Or Ibsen. Or Goethe. I can pare five centuries of French soi-disant literature down to Candide and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. And no - Iím not forgetting Proust. You can stuff Proust. Il pouvait ennuyer pour La France.

I can even (O Heresy ! O Blasphemy !) conveniently forget my self-imposed annual dose of The Faerie Queene.

It was Arnold Bennett who said something to the effect that ďA list of the masterpieces I have never read would fill a volume.Ē Arnie-boy - Iím right in there with you. There are hundreds of worthy books that Iíve always felt I ought to read; some Iíve tried and failed miserably, some Iíve never got around to, and some Iíve never been able to face.

And Iíve just decided that Iím never going to bother. Iím only going to read what interests me, and the dickens take the rest. Ainít Freedom wonderful?!


Books in the news

October saw the opening salvos in the pens-at-ten-paces stand off between the author of the phenomenally-bestselling The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown on the one hand and on the other, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh who co-authored the controversial The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, published in 1982. Baigent and Leigh claim that that Brown plagiarised their work and that The Da Vinci Code reproduces the "whole jigsaw puzzle" of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail- in particular the theory that Jesus and Mary Magdalene married and together established a bloodline which has since been protected by secret societies for generations. The trial is expected to come to court in February next year.

And in another bizarre twist in the Harry Potter saga, the young wizard hero managed his own day at court. On 10th October, a security guard admitted stealing two copies of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince from a distribution centre six weeks before publication.  Aaron Lambert was arrested the day after the theft in June this year when negotiations with two national newspapers to sell the books fell through and armed policed stormed his flat.  Lambert was remanded in custody depending a further hearing.


Next Month: The feature for December 2005 to be announced


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