Further to my discourse (below) on the various reasons why a ‘celebrity’ might choose a particular title as his or her ‘Book of the Year’, I feel impelled to add one more, spotted recently.
This is the Reconciliation, a phenomenon that is all too rare in the literary world.
In the Times Literary Supplement for 29 November 2013, A N Wilson, novelist, biographer, historian and erstwhile ‘young fogey’, makes his main choice a book entitled The Virgin’s Baby: The Battle for the Ampthill Succession, by Bevis Hillier.
The nomination calls the book a ‘beautifully crafted slice of tragicomic social history.’ Nothing strange about that, you might think. Wilson, a prolific and professional writer, has himself published copious social histories. But the crucial point here is that he shares something else with Bevis Hillier: both have written lives of the poet John Betjeman.
Hillier spent 25 years on his massively detailed three-volume biography, which came out between 1988 and 2004; conversely, Wilson’s succinct and lively account of the poet (published in 2006) is unlikely to have detained him for more than a matter of months. In 2002, they became enemies after Wilson reviewed Hillier’s second volume, calling it a ‘hopeless mish-mash of a book’.
Hillier took his revenge. That year he chose Wilson as his least favourite author in the end-of-year lists. Wilson responded publicly: ‘How utterly pitiable to be some old bachelor in a Hiram’s Hospital, smock-clad like a pauper in the reign of Henry VIII, dripping resentment like the dottle from a smelly churchwarden’s pipe, and with so little in his life that he has to worry his sad old head about a book review.’
Hillier wasn’t finished. He forged a letter ‘proving’ that Betjeman carried on an affair with the late Honor Tracy. This was entirely untrue – Miss Tracy, an Englishwoman, did have a long love affair with Ireland, but never, as far as anyone knows, with any actual men.
When, as intended, the misleading epistle fell into Wilson’s hands while he was writing his biography, he included it gleefully in the book, conjuring up, as David Pryce-Jones put it in an account of the business, ‘alcohol-fuelled lunches and afternoons in a rented room.’ What A N Wilson unfortunately failed to notice was that the first letters of its sentences spelt out ‘A N Wilson is a sh**’!
That was then; this is now. During 2013 the newspapers reported that the two writers were observed in a restaurant dining amicably together. Apparently, the pair even exchanged signed copies of their most recent books. The hatchet has clearly been buried – and, as we have seen, Wilson has further marked this happy event in the traditional way: by choosing his new friend’s latest literary production for the ‘Books of the Year’ column.
(Eagle-eyed readers may notice that despite a promise I have entirely failed to mention any of MY Christmas books at all. Well, how about the following?
Just What I Always Wanted! Unwrapping the World’s Most Curious Presents By Robin Laurance. A pristine hardcover copy is for sale (for 5 euros) at Zozimus Bookshop, Gorey, where the proprietor is desperate to sell it before Christmas!)