- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 27, 2004

Letter from London

It is the time of year when the literary pages turn to thoughts of books of the year. Britain being such a small place — we are essentially talking about a few square miles of London — there is usually a familiar ring to the recommendations. Author X praises the wisdom of novelist Y in one newspaper, and a few days later Y returns the compliment in another journal, not forgetting to add a few lines trumpeting the achievements of historian Z, whom he last met over a warm glass of wine at X’s launch party.

I recall, a decade or more ago, that A.N. Wilson announced that he was giving up book-reviewing, at least for a while, partly because it was distracting him from the writing of books, partly because it was impossible to approach the job with any degree of objectivity: Either he found he knew the author concerned, or he discovered that he had been to Cambridge with his sister.

Not that any of this will stop me taking a furtive look at the recommendations appearing in print over the next week or so. No matter how much I tell myself that the whole thing is a racket, I always succumb to the temptation in the end. (Just in case anyone approaches me with a request to name the best books I have read this year, I have a clutch of titles at the ready, including “The Norman Podhoretz Reader”, Thomas Jeffers’ guide to one the best minds of our time, and Ferdinand Mount’s elegant discussion of the English class system, “Mind The Gap” (the subject, as you may recall, of my last Letter).

I only wish the rules could be altered to allow any title, regardless of the year of publication, to be included. In that case, I would make room for “The Conquest of New Spain”, Bernaz Diaz del Castillo’s pungent, first-hand account of Cortes’ journey to the heart of the Aztec empire (a volume I sought out after racing through Victor Davis Hanson’s marvellous study of military history, “Ripples of Battle”).

As for fiction, it pains me to say that I can’t think of a single new novel that has caught my imagination this year. If I had to pick out the one piece of fiction I have enjoyed more than any other, it would be a Conrad short story “An Outpost of Progress” — a dry run of sorts for “Heart of Darkness” — which I came across in a paperback anthology in a thrift shop. Sometimes the chance discoveries are the best.

And what is everyone else reading? “Everyone”, as in real people, that is. To get some idea, I have been consulting the latest bestseller lists in the London Sunday Times. If Americans still cling to the idea that the British reading public is more high-brow than its counterpart across the Atlantic, the week’s Top Ten, compiled by The Bookseller magazine, brings some sobering news.

Of the Top Ten hardbacks, for instance, no fewer than eight had a TV, show business or sporting connection, with the book version of Michael Palin’s TV travelogue, Himalaya taking pride of place. Only one title, Lynne Truss’s genial punctuation guide, “Eats, Shoots & Leaves”, qualified as a conventional literary work.

On the hardback fiction list, Danielle Steele rubs shoulders with Patricia Cornwell, Maeve Binchy, Terry Pratchett and Ben Elton, with the number one slot occupied by Martina Cole’s thriller “The Graft.” Not being familiar with Miss Cole’s work, I looked her up on Amazon and immediately came across this recommendation from one of her fans: “Vicious and violent as usual — lovely!”

If you are interested in transatlantic comparisons, it’s worth noting that the New York Times bestseller list for the same week is also dominated by romance and thrillers, although both Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth do make an appearance. The non-fiction looks very different, however, despite the presence of the voluble Miss Truss.

Jon Stewart may be top of the charts, but he faces at least a degree of competition from, among others, Joseph Ellis’s biography of George Washington, Thomas Frank’s “What’s The Matter With Kansas?” and T.R. Reid’s “The United States of Europe.” I draw no conclusions from all this, except to say that the notion that all English people are busy quoting Shakespeare to one another may be slightly out of date.

Generating any kind of conversation has not been easy these past weeks. As you may have heard, the British intelligentsia is still sunk in gloom over the re-election of George W. Bush. Having convinced themselves that John Kerry would snatch victory at the finishing-post, the London literary world is even more despondent than its counterpart on the Upper West Side.

“This is a black day for Europe,” intoned Sir Harold Pinter. His response was understated compared with the outburst from best-selling psychologist Oliver James, who sounded as if he needed a lie-down on his clinic’s couch: “I was too depressed to even speak this morning. I thought of my late mother, who read “Mein Kampf” when it came out in the 1930s and thought, ‘Why doesn’t anyone see where this is leading?’”

As a Bush supporter, this is all good reason for gloating. The trouble is, I have nobody to gloat over. All my friends — 99 per cent of them Kerry supporters — have gone to ground to sulk. Whenever I have fleeting conversations with them, they look into the near-distance, make small-talk and studiously avoid the B-word. The silence is so profound it is as if the US election never even took place. I do feel a little sorry for them.

Then again, I did warn them not to believe everything they heard on the BBC or read in the Guardian. In the meantime I have been keeping myself company by launching a weblog devoted to transatlantic culture and politics. It is great fun, although my wife complains that I am already spending my waking hours absent-mindedly muttering about hyperlinks and templates. I have told her that it is simply a new form of daily literature, and if she is really so worried about my welfare, she should email me her concerns. She says it would be much simpler if I came downstairs to talk about it. She can be so unreasonable sometimes.

Clive Davis writes for The Times of London. His weblog is at clivedavis.blogspot.com

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