BBC Arts and The Reading Agency have produced “The Big Jubilee Read”. They have selected 70 works of British and Commonwealth fiction to honour the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, ten for each decade of her reign.
Of the 70 authors featured, I find I have heard of exactly half of them. This does not, of course, reflect badly on the selectors, but on my ignorance of most Commonwealth literature. The Commonwealth dimension is a good one, not only because the Queen is Head of the Commonwealth, but also because it does represent a shared literary culture which is worldwide.
Nevertheless, the list’s emphases are odd. Take the ten titles from 1952 to 1961. Seven of them deal with issues of slavery, racism, immigration and empire. All important themes for fiction, but a bit obsessive in such concentration. Only one of the ten, A House for Mr Biswas, by V.S.Naipaul, could be described as famous.
Yet the decade in question was prodigious for British fiction. In those years – Ian Fleming’s James Bond burst upon the world in 1953 with Casino Royale and continued at the rate of one a year. Kingsley Amis’s debut, Lucky Jim, was the comic hit of the decade. Raymond Chandler (British, though living in the United States) produced The Long Goodbye. Graham Greene published Our Man in Havana.
It was an era of great fictional projects too. Evelyn Waugh wrote his Sword of Honour trilogy, which many see as the greatest English fiction to have emerged from the Second World War. It was in the 1950s that Anthony Powell brought out the early volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time. Mary Renault got going on her novels of the ancient Greek world (including The King Must Die), which are nowadays recognised as classics of gay literature. It was a period of tremendous literary diversity. Sad to leave so much out.
An even odder omission is The Lord of The Rings (1955). J.R.R.Tolkien’s construction of an entire mythical world has sold more than 150 million copies. Perhaps the selectors saw his trilogy as children’s books, which they exclude. If so, they were mistaken, although of course many children love Tolkien.
Here, in no particular order, are some other outstanding Elizabethan authors who do not make the BBC cut: C.S. Lewis, Doris Lessing, William Golding, Penelope Fitzgerald, Martin Amis, Patrick O’Brian, Ian McEwan, C.S.Forester, Philip Pullman, Julian Barnes, A.S.Byatt, Alan Hollinghurst, William Trevor, Vikram Seth, Daphne du Maurier and Angela Carter.
To which should be added writers whose gift for comedy, satire or the light touch form such an important part of our literary tradition – Michael Frayn, Sue Townsend, Helen Fielding, Alexander McCall Smith, George MacDonald Fraser and – though their best work was written before Elizabeth II ascended the throne – Nancy Mitford and P.G.Wodehouse.
As so often in current culture, I fear that we, the reading or would-be reading public, are being preached to about what somebody thinks would be good for us rather than encouraged to read what we would actually enjoy.
Anyway, there are two important things to bear in mind. The first is that the present Queen has presided over an era of immense literary achievement and variety in the English language in most parts of the globe. That is a fact to be celebrated. Writing in English has captured the world’s imagination more than ever (and that is true even without American English, which is excluded from the Jubilee list for obvious reasons).
The second is that the Queen herself has probably not read – and will steadfastly not read – any of the 70 books offered up by the BBC and The Reading Public. Alan Bennett, another notable omission from The Big Jubilee Read, once wrote a novella, The Uncommon Reader, in which the Queen becomes a bookworm. I expect she hasn’t read that either. If so, that is sensible: reading provides too many subversive pleasures. Her Majesty has instead devoted all her energies and patience to reigning for longer than all but ten per cent of the population can remember. That is a feat stranger than fiction.
In defence of Nicola Sturgeon
Against some headwinds, this column has tried to argue that the various infractions of lockdown rules perpetrated in Downing Street should not be seen as resigning matters, though they cannot be defended. I have tried to invoke that traditional British value, a sense of proportion.
I stick to my case. Indeed, I hereby amplify it by pointing out that an offence attracting a fixed penalty notice of £50 is surely not intended to be seen as super-serious, even when the offence is compounded, as in these cases, by the offenders who had imposed these penalties themselves.
I have been conscious, however, that some think I must blindly be defending Boris Johnson just because I supported Brexit and wanted him to become Prime Minister.
So let me make my argument with a different example. I have never, so far as I remember, supported the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, in any one of her public actions. Yet it seems to me that the attempt to discredit her for not having worn a mask while in a barber’s shop in East Kilbride last Saturday is indescribably petty and stupid.
Perhaps Ms Sturgeon will now join this column’s campaign to declare a general amnesty for all offences committed against emergency Covid rules and help this country return to normal life and common sense.