In the dog days of winter, when venturing out under darkened, sleety skies is to be avoided if at all possible, an online book club often seems the most appealing kind there is. Here in the UK, on territory in which the daytime TV hosts Richard and Judy once held undisputed reign, a bookish royal has entered the fray: Queen Camilla, whose ‘reading room’ and associated charity was launched on Instagram during the pandemic, and has now branched into podcasts.
The first episode of The Queen’s Reading Room was introduced by the charity’s chief executive Vicki Perrin, to the background music of insistently vivacious strings, the kind they let rip in royal period dramas as squealing young duchesses chase each other through palace corridors before coming face-to-face with a tight-lipped governess. Perrin gave way to the episode’s star guest, crime novelist Sir Ian Rankin, who – the questions having been edited out – appeared to be cast adrift on a long personal reflection about his literary journey and tastes.
Still, it made for agreeable listening. Sir Ian’s one of the growing band of prominent men (see also Rishi Sunak) who attest to a deep affection for the works of Jilly Cooper. Snowbound in a French farmhouse one year, and having devoured all other available books, he fell back on his wife’s copy of Rivals, only to relish its ‘fantastic escapist fun’. Those who grew up, as I did, reading the breezy and saucy Imogen, Harriet and Octavia, with a younger Jilly gamely pouting in soft focus from the cover, may well share the nostalgia. But the book he revisits every few years is Muriel Spark’s The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie. It’s a slim volume at only 120 pages, but it’s ‘a Tardis’: its interior life gets bigger every time he reads it.