“Put that book down, you’ll ruin your eyes!” Or so my mother warned me every day of my childhood (at night, I used to read secretly in bed, the pages illuminated by the Lucozade glow of the streetlight), and how right she was. My eyesight is appalling, but my literary judgment is pretty good. That’s why I feel qualified to tell you that the BBC’s Big Jubilee Read – seven decades of “literary masterpieces”, one title to mark every year the Queen has been on the throne – is utterly appalling.
I am flabbergasted. This has to be one of the feeblest, most politically correct, dismally unpatriotic excuses for a reading list of all time.
The disgraceful, cowardly omission of JK Rowling, the writer who has done more to promote reading to our digital youth than any other, has rightly attracted furious condemnation. “There was a big discussion about JK Rowling,” explained Susheila Nasta, emeritus professor of modern literature at Queen Mary, University of London. “She was on the longlist with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. A space was cleared for someone equally as good but whose work was not as well known. There were some very tricky decisions.”
Equally as good? Which of the authors who made the final cut was a better candidate to represent her era than JK Rowling, Professor Nasta? I can assure you it wasn’t one female writer you chose, Keri Hulme, New Zealand author of The Bone People and the dullest ever winner of the Booker Prize (amid stiff competition). If you’re going to feature another Booker winner, why not choose Howard Jacobson, whose uproarious wit and wry wisdom could at least appeal to a wide audience? Because being born British Jewish – not, alas, Maori – Jacobson was clearly the wrong kind of multicultural identity for the librarians and academics who picked this sanctimonious selection.
So, instead of Jacobson and master storyteller Graham Greene, instead of JRR Tolkien, the Penelopes Fitzgerald and Lively, Martin (and/or Kingsley) Amis, Susan Hill, Ian McEwan, Beryl Bainbridge, Julian Barnes, Patrick O’Brian, Jane Gardam or Sebastian Faulks and his beloved Birdsong, we get one Zee Edgell of Belize whose novel Beka Lamb “describes the colonial era in British Honduras”. Don’t all rush down the library at once!
Given Her Majesty’s devotion to the Commonwealth, it was right to include some of the great authors from the 54 member countries. (No one could quibble with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, JM Coetzee or VS Naipaul.) But, of the 70 writers on the list, just 14 are from the UK, the well-spring of much of the finest fiction of the past, and every preceding, century. I consider myself fairly well-read and I could only recognise 27 of the titles. Not only that; second-division performers are admitted if they tick the right boxes while stars of the premier league are left on the bench.
How else to explain the appearance of Jackie Kay’s first poetry collection, Adoption Papers, the story of a black girl’s adoption by a Scottish couple, among the Top 70 while Philip Larkin’s immortal work of genius, The Whitsun Weddings, is nowhere to be seen? Honestly, I despair.
One of the few surefire masterpieces of Elizabeth II’s long and glorious reign is Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, the best British work of fiction to come out of the Second World War. The Royals, apart from the Duchess of Cornwall, are not great novel readers, but, should she ever tear herself away from a Dick Francis gee-gee thriller (a cracking good read, by the way), the Queen would recognise and admire Waugh’s extraordinary portrait of her countrymen in their darkest, and finest, hour.
To wilfully exclude such a mighty novel from the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee book list, and to omit JK Rowling who has redefined and exalted Britishness for half the globe because she is perceived to have sinned against some fashionable piety, is pure cultural vandalism. What should have been a wonderful idea celebrating one of our greatest exports, storytelling in the English language since 1952, has been hijacked by the mirthless, self-loathing, identity-politics drones.
Her Majesty deserves better. How about we start an alternative Big Jubilee Read for people who prefer fantastic stories to lectures in post-colonial guilt? A list that’s fit for a queen.
I’ll begin by nominating Jilly Cooper because QE2 does like an alpha male in jodhpurs. What are the books you love that define 70 years of the Platinum Jubilee? Let us know in the comments section below…