They say Coetzee's Disgrace presents South African angst. Bollocks. A book by a white professor couldn't
I've been a bit scornful of literary prizes in the past, so I had mixed feelings about being guest judge for the W H Smith Prize. The prize is not as elitist as most - one of the longlisted books this year was a strip cartoon, Gemma Bovery by Posy Simmonds. I dislike the Booker because it never goes to a popular bestseller. The Pulitzer does, occasionally - Gone with the Wind won it - but is no less respected for that. Happily, this year's W H Smith winner is an accessible novel with a real story, Melvyn Bragg's The Soldier's Return. The author's love of the small town where the story takes place suffuses the writing. The town is also the source of the dramatic conflict: the husband realises that he can never fulfil his destiny there, but his wife knows it is the only place where she can fulfil hers. I expected Bragg to be cool about winning. It's not as if he needs the prize to launch his career or anything. But he was obviously moved. It turns out that the man in the story is partly based on his father, now dead. And as he accepted the award, Bragg was close to tears.
The one shortlisted book I really hated was Disgrace, by John Coetzee. Its principal characters are victims, people who are too apathetic or cowardly to help themselves. When treated unjustly, they do not defend themselves; when physically attacked and raped, they choose not to accuse their assailants. The result is a story that I found both tedious and infuriating. Its defenders say it somehow presents the essential angst of South Africa today. Bollocks. I doubt if any book by a white university professor could do that. Anyway, the truth on its own is never enough for a novel. There's a humorous postcard with a plain black picture entitled "Bournemouth by Night". The joke is that, even if Bournemouth really were like that at night, it still wouldn't be a good picture.
It's a bit embarrassing that the prize goes to a pal. No doubt I have won a place on Private Eye's list of literati who plug their friends. In fact, I knew three of the six shortlisted authors personally, and my wife Barbara used to know Coetzee. I've been swimming in the pond of London's cultural life for most of the past 30 years, so it would be surprising if I didn't know some of the other fish. Should the judges be people who could not possibly be friends with a winning author? The decision would have to be handed over to people who are not immersed in the cultural pool. Well, that's what W H Smith has decided to do. The rules are being changed and, next year, the final choice will be made by a vote of its customers. That's fine by me. Hey, I might even win.
The new National Library of Women is rising on the site of a Victorian wash-house in Old Castle Street, Whitechapel, east London. It will house what is now called the Fawcett Library, the largest and most comprehensive women's history collection in Europe. (Its only rival is the Schlesinger Library at Harvard.) As Barbara is the chair of the fundraising committee, we were shown around by the architect, Claire Wright. It's going to have a dramatic exhibition space on the ground floor and what promises to be a delightful reading room - in grisly contrast to the cramped, windowless basement where the collection is now inadequately housed. It should open about a year from now. I'm toying with the idea of a thriller about women secret agents in the Second World War - there were about 50 of them, in real life - so I may be one of the library's first customers.
I spent 4 May the way I imagine many New Statesman readers did, shivering outside a polling station with a red rosette pinned to my overcoat, taking numbers. Stevenage voters treat me the way my family do, feeling no obligation to flatter.
"I read your latest," said one amiably. "Not your best book."
Labour did better in Stevenage than in the country as a whole. We held all our council seats, and the swing against us was about half the national 10 per cent. Peter Kellner, the polling expert, came to lunch on the following Sunday. I never draw conclusions from polls until I've heard his opinion, but, for a change, he was asking us what explanation we could offer for the Hertfordshire effect. Stevenage has a go-ahead Labour council, and - though I says it as shouldn't - a popular MP (my wife). Barbara is strongly identified with new Labour, but not with Tony Blair, mainly because various Blair acolytes have been a bit rude about us on occasion. In today's politics, that's an advantage.
Christie's is about to auction the corrected galley proofs of Marcel Proust's mould-breaking first novel, Swann's Way. (The estimate is £600,000 to £900,000.) The extensive and pernickety modifications the author made at that late stage confirm his status as literature's greatest fusspot. Proust changed the title of the series, from Les intermittences du coeur to A la recherche du temps perdu. He also altered the title of the first book from Le temps perdu to Charles Swann, but then changed his mind again and made it Du cote de chez Swann. He also decided to change the spelling of the title of Part One, Combray. Having fiddled with all the titles available, he came to that famous first line: "Longtemps, je me suis couche de bonne heure" - in English: "For a long time, I used to go to bed early." He crossed it out. Then he reinstated it - thus saving for posterity what must be the least arresting first line ever written.