Books at bedtime
I am a slow reader. Whether it's a throwaway thriller or a literary masterpiece, it still seems to take me two minutes to get through a page. Currently I am compiling The Oxford Book of Theatrical Anecdotes (due for publication next year), so I am reading a lot of theatrical biographies. I'm just finishing Ronnie Barker's memoir of his years in Rep - Dancing in the Moonlight - and it's a complete joy: evocative, amusing, and so politically incorrect that I doubt it could be published as it is in 2018. Most nights I read to my wife out loud in bed - which means that often I read a whole book twice because invariably she falls asleep while I'm reading so I have to re-read half of what I read last night again tonight, if you get my drift. We're just finishing the extraordinary - truly gripping - autobiography of Katie Boyle: What This Katie Did. For anyone who knew her, or remembers her with affection, it's an absolute must-read.
The must-read novel if you've not yet read it is The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett. In my view, Arnold Bennett is one of the great English novelists. I’d argue that The Old Wives’ Tale is the finest novel written by an Englishman in the twentieth century. (Feel free to disagree!) The humour, the humanity, the heart of the man, combined with a wonderful capacity as a story-teller and a stylist, put him in the forefront of the first rank.
I love his Journals, too.
He’s been out of fashion for a while, but then so has Thackeray. In a way, that makes discovering him all the more exciting. You can feel you’ve stumbled on a secret treasure. And you have. Bennett is, quite simply, one of the best.
And now to answer those 'Books in my life' questions . . .
My childhood crush
My lifelong love of teddy bears began with my first Rupert Annual when I was about six. I now have a collection of more than a thousand bears, but it all began with Rupert who isn’t a bear at all. He’s a boy with a bear’s head. My wife says I have never really left Nutwood and I suspect she’s right.
My first true love
When I was eleven I appeared as Rosalind in a school production of As You Like It and – yes, aged 11 – I read the Complete Works of Shakespeare: every play, every line. I can’t have understood much of it, but I fell head over heels in love with the words and with Shakespeare’s remarkable heroines. Shakespeare is the one writer who never lets you down.
The one I dumped
I went to the French Lycée in London and know that Marcel Proust is supposed to be one of the greatest of French novelists. I have made three attempts to get into In Search of Things Past (in French and in English) and have never managed to get beyond Chapter two of Volume One. (There are 7 volumes.)
The one that made me cry
I love the novels of the great Victorian writer, Anthony Trollope, and his stories set around the fictitious Barchester Cathedral are my favourites. Even 150 years since they were created, his characters are so real. The death of Septimus Harding at the end of The Last Chronicle of Barset certainly made me cry.
My perfect holiday fling
I write murder mysteries set in Victorian London (featuring Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle as my detectives) and I love traditional British detective stories and always feel that for holiday “comfort reading” you can’t do better than Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie. My absolute favourite mystery writer is Dorothy L Sayers who created Lord Peter Wimsey, definitively played on TV (in very different ways) by Ian Carmichael and Edward Pethebridge.
The one I’m taking to bed now
My daughter Saethryd’s partner is a former Coldstream Guards’ officer, Mark Evans, who has written a completely extraordinary story about his time as a soldier in Afghanistan. Code Black gives a blistering portrait of the reality of modern warfare and a moving account of post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s Andy McNab meets In the Psychiatrist’s Chair and I shouldn’t really be reading it in bed because it’s a page-turner that keeps you awake half the night.
Keeping it in the family
My son, Benet Brandreth, is a novelist - among other things. And if you enjoy historical fiction, humour and adventure, I recommend without reservation his two wonderful novels exploring the imagined adventures of William Shakespeare during his so-called 'lost years' in the 1590s. It's The Three Musketeers in late sixteenth century Italy with glorious Shakesperean jokes thrown it. Start with The Spy of Venice and then discover The Assassin of Verona.