Sam Leith

Diary - 29 June 2017

Also in Sam Leith’s Diary: the best 18th-century novel since the 18th century and gossiping with David Miller

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To Fortnum & Mason last week on the hottest evening of the year to present the Desmond Elliott Prize for this year’s best first novel, which I helped judge. I had to acknowledge the weather in my speech: I was perspiring, ahem, liberally. Sweating like a… what? The traditional comparator is now definitely verboten. Like Keith Vaz before a select committee? Like Boris in an Eddie Mair interview? Too niche. I went for ‘like a British Brexit negotiator’ and got a gratifying laugh. They won’t be laughing two years from now.

We had two superb runners-up in Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Harmless Like You and Kit de Waal’s My Name Is Leon. But the prize went finally to Francis Spufford’s almost indecently clever and entertaining Golden Hill, set in 18th-century New York and described as ‘the best 18th-century novel since the 18th century’. A bizarre thing in the book is how New York, then, was a tiny village on the lower tip of Manhattan with vast dark forest all points north. They’ve had to go to eastern Europe to find a sufficiently forested location for the film version.

I’d been in Oxford earlier for the annual conference of the Society of Indexers, of which I’m honorary president. Many people don’t stop to think how indexes come to be attached to books. They imagine, perhaps, either that they grow on the back of a text like a benevolent fungus, or vaguely assume it’s all done by computers. Well it isn’t and it can’t be. An algorithm can identify the location of a given word; but can’t tell you the run of pages over which a subject is being discussed; nor reliably identify people who go by different names, or different people who go by the same one; nor pick out the significant reference amid the dread thicket of Frequent Passing Mentions. Cherish your indexers, kids: retired librarians don’t grow on trees. And yet, as I write that, it occurs to me gloomily that former librarians are becoming a more plentiful national resource.

I enjoyed the afternoon seminar on indexing life-writing given by Christopher Phipps — who, as well as indexing the first volume of our own Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher, did a bang-up job on Rod Stewart’s memoirs, as well as works on or by Joan Collins, Johnny Marr and Hitler. I enjoyed his how-not-to-do-its. In the entry for the subject of a book, he warned, going in order of first mention can get you in trouble. Biographers can never resist starting with the funeral, so you get: ‘Funeral of, 1-12… Is born, 14…’

The index to a biography of the physicist Paul Dirac, under ‘life story’, had the headings: ‘birth, 10… appearance and dress sense, 1… digestive problems, 1… foresees the existence of the positron, 2… childhood in Bristol, 4…’ ‘Bit precocious,’ said Christopher.

Reporting on Jeremy Corbyn’s Glastonbury appearance, the Times described him as ‘a vegetable-growing leftie written off until the biggest election upset in a generation, in his own words, by the commentariats and the elites’. The syntax doesn’t make it clear whether the plural ‘commentariats’ is Jezza’s usage or the reporter’s. My hunch is the latter: an old Trot will have had some practice with collective nouns ending in ‘-ariat’. You can pluralise ‘commentariat’, of course, but unless you’re distinguishing between different ones I’d advise against it. Editorial Intelligence’s annual press awards, on the other hand, go the other way. Its ‘Commentariat of the Year’ award is given to a single person rather than, as you might hope, the lot of us. Pretty sure that’s wrong. Strange, given EI is run by Julia Hobsbawm, whose Marxist historian father did some time in the ‘-ariat’ mines himself.

Lunch with the literary agent Caroline Dawnay; the main occasion being the chance to swap stories about our mutual friend (and my agent) the late David Miller, who died at Christmas. David loved to gossip, and Caroline passed on a story he told her not long before he died. The scene was a ritzy New York publishing party. A guest, having dipped his nut freely in the Martini bucket, crossed the room to an elderly gentleman of Indian appearance and started pulling faces and waving his hands in front of the man’s eyes. Reprimanded afterwards, he said: ‘I’m sorry. I’ve always had a pet theory that Ved Mehta isn’t really blind, but I was wrong: he looked right through me.’ The host: ‘That was V.S. Naipaul.’ I can imagine how hard David would have laughed as he told this. Caroline couldn’t remember who the face-puller was; David isn’t here to remind us. I googled it on the off-chance. Turns out it’s an extremely old story — which, oddly, makes me feel more affection for the chutzpah of its teller.

Written bySam Leith

Sam Leith is an English author, journalist and literary editor of The Spectator.

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