You are here

A city in hard covers

A city in hard covers

It is not clear if the reading habits of Londoners are markedly different from those of the rest of the nation but Amazon has decided to release a list of the Top 10 books that have been aiding citizens of the Big Smoke under lockdown. Many of the featured books are pretty much what you’d expect: Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club tops the list and Charlie Mackesy’s feel-good The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse and Delia Owens’s much lauded Where the Crawdads Sing are there too, as are Bridgerton spin-offs. But so are three Booker Prize works: Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, naturally, but also Kiley Reid’s 2020 longlisted Such a Fun Age and Jews Don’t Count by David Baddiel who was a prize judge in 2002. Debut fiction, racism, mental health, Bridgerton. . . anyone trying to understand Londoners by their reading matter would have a head-scratching time of things.

Baddiel recently recalled his judging experience with mixed emotions. On the evening of the award dinner he discovered he had forgotten his black-tie ensemble and had to have it delivered from home. “For some reason, I hadn’t put the correct trousers with it,” he admitted, and it turned up with PVC leggings from his days as a punk. Consequently, “I had to button up my jacket so as to not show my pants” ­– and spend the bulk of the evening sitting down.

Howard Jacobson, Man Booker Prize winner in 2010, is another who is no stranger to humiliation. In a recent diary piece, he confessed to a tumble in Regent’s Park while “carrying a takeaway coffee and a pain aux raisins”. Down he went in a “full-length Woody Woodpecker slide” and it took a passing young man to pull him out of the mud. “‘I’m OK, thank you,’ I tell my rescuer, whereupon he undoes all his kindness and says: ‘I know, the humiliation is always the worst part, isn’t it?’ One suggestion: the next time you help a person out of a humiliating situation, don’t use the word humiliating.”

Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light may not have made it past the longlist stage of last year’s Booker Prize but it has reached the shortlist of the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. The award, worth £25,000, is familiar to the great dame – she won the inaugural version in 2010 with Wolf Hall. Indeed the WSP has a penchant for Booker Prize authors, other winners include alumni such as Andrea Levy, Sebastian Barry, Tan Twan Eng, Simon Mawer and Robin Robertson. If this hasn’t jinxed Mantel’s chances (she is, coincidentally, also on the shortlist for the British Book Awards Fiction Book of the Year while Douglas Stuart is on the Debut category), she will discover her fate in June – with a novelistic twist, the actual date of the winner announcement is still to be decided.

Sebastian Barry, a double Booker Prize shortlistee, is an all-round good egg. If further proof were needed he has just agreed to extend his term as Ireland’s laureate for fiction for a further year – what’s more, he won’t take a penny for his troubles. The position (previously held by another Bookerite, Anne Enright) is there to support and promote Irish fiction but the pandemic has played havoc with the handover that was due to occur with the end of Barry’s three-year tenure. When he was asked to stay in post until calmer waters were reached he happily agreed, waiving his fee to boot. His legion of admirers will hope that his laureate duties don’t hold him back in the writing of his next novel.

A quick diary note: the world of literature never sleeps, as evidenced by the announcement of the International Booker Prize longlist on 30 March which is pipped to the post, by just one day, by the shortlist announcement for the International Prize for Arab Fiction – an award that has been mentored by the Booker Prize Foundation, the prizes’ charitable wing. Lockdown easing, the Booker Prize wheels gathering speed. . . things are looking up.