Sam Leith 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

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.

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