“Put that book down, you’ll ruin your eyes!” Or else my mother warned me every day of my childhood (at night I secretly read in bed, the pages lit by the Lucozade glow from the street lamp), and how right she was. My eyesight is terrible, 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’, a headline to mark each year the Queen has been on the throne – is absolutely appalling fact.
I am flabbergasted. This has got to be one of the weakest, most politically correct, and lamentably unpatriotic excuses for a playlist ever.
The shameful and cowardly omission of JK Rowling, the writer who has done more than any other to promote reading among our digital youth, has rightly drawn furious condemnation. “There was a big discussion about JK Rowling,” said Susheila Nasta, Emeritus Professor of Modern Literature at Queen Mary, University of London. “She was on the long list with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. A space was cleared for someone as good but whose work was not as well known. There were some very delicate decisions.
Just as good? Which of the authors who made the final cut was a better candidate to represent his era than JK Rowling, Professor Nasta? I can assure you that you didn’t choose just one writer, Keri Hulme, New Zealand author of The Bone People and the most boring winner of the Booker Prize (in the midst of fierce competition). If you’re going to feature another Booker winner, why not choose Howard Jacobson, whose thunderous wit and wry wisdom might at least appeal to a wide audience? Because being born British Jew – and not, alas, Maori – Jacobson was clearly the wrong kind of multicultural identity for the librarians and scholars who chose this moralizing selection.
So instead of Jacobson and the 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 a Zee Edgell from Belize whose novel Beka Lamb “describes the colonial era in British Honduras”. Don’t all rush into the library at once!
Given Her Majesty’s dedication to the Commonwealth, it was fitting 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, only 14 come from the UK, the source of much of the best fiction of the past, and each previous, century. I consider myself quite cultured and was only able to recognize 27 of the titles. Not only that; second division performers are admitted if they tick the right boxes while premier league stars are left on the bench.
How else to explain the appearance of Jackie Kay’s first collection of poetry, Adoption Papers, the story of the adoption of a black girl by a Scottish couple, among the Top 70 while the immortal work of genius by Philip Larkin , The Whitsun Weddings, is not found? Honestly, I despair.
One of the few infallible masterpieces of Elizabeth II’s long and glorious reign is Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honor trilogy, the finest work of British fiction to emerge from the Second World War. The royals, with the exception of the Duchess of Cornwall, aren’t big novel readers, but if she ever tears herself away from a gee-gee Dick Francis thriller (a good read, by the way) passing), the queen would recognize and admire Waugh. extraordinary portrait of his compatriots in their darkest and finest hour.
To deliberately exclude such a powerful novel from the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee list of books and to omit JK Rowling who redefined and exalted Britishness for half the world because she is seen to have sinned against fashionable piety is pure cultural vandalism. What should have been a wonderful idea celebrating one of our greatest exports, English storytelling since 1952, has been hijacked by the joyless, self-loathing and identity drones.
Her Majesty deserves better. How about launching an alternative reading of the Great Jubilee for people who prefer fantasy stories to lectures on postcolonial guilt? A list fit for a queen.
I’ll start by naming Jilly Cooper because QE2 likes an alpha male in jodhpurs. What books do you love that define 70 years of Platinum Jubilee? Let us know in the comments section below…