A Week in Books: How Auntie cooks the books

BOYD TONKIN The saintly cook's new marketing blitz may leave a sour taste behind
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The Independent Culture
HER FIVE-LETTER forename begins with a D and ends in an A. Alone, it identifies her to the armies of fans who have never met her but regard her as a mentor and friend. On screen, in print, her image will lift ratings and revive circulations. In millions of homes, she counts as a byword for warmth and sincerity, with just a hint of spicy and exotic adventures on the side. And, best of all, she is still very much alive.

Intellectuals like to pretend that it calls for guts to criticise the acts or the cult of Diana, Princess of Wales. Maybe once; certainly not now. Instead, they should try taking a potshot at Delia Smith (pictured right). Then the cranberries would really hit the fan.

The Queen of Tarts (and soups, stews and salads) returns on 12 October. BBC Worldwide publishing has earmarked pounds 2m to market the first half of her new all-purpose kitchen primer, Delia's How to Cook, which will partner a series on BBC2. In the book business, very few future events can ever rank as an absolute cert. Only a fool foretells the Booker winner, say. Yet everyone knows, as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, that Delia's fresh batch of 120 recipes will have as much chance of missing the top of the charts as Lord Archer has of carrying off the aforesaid prize.

Should we rejoice or despair at the idolatry this kitchen goddess attracts? From a purely culinary angle, the Delia boom still tastes pretty good. Only a snob or a boor would scorn her deeply democratic mission to refine and excite the British palate. And, in private, the snootier foodies do just that, with a patrician venom that makes Brian Sewell sound like Des O'Connor. They can't forgive her for bringing treats from distant parts - or simply flavoursome ingredients - within the reach of hoi polloi.

So, three cheers for all the chow. However, when it comes to her impact on the ecology of publishing and book retailing, the Delia effect looks about as benign as BSE. First, consider the BBC's questionable use of its tax-funded privileges. BBC Worldwide is a commercial publishing enterprise that pays its own way. Fair enough? Not exactly, since the success of its books rests massively on millions of pounds worth of free prime-time promotion. Several other houses have new work by leading cooks due in the autumn, without the benefit of such gratis TV plugs. All will be buffeted, if not swamped, by the Delia tide.

Now spare a thought for the local bookshops that bank on Delia for many months of passing trade, and a Christmas bonanza. Her Winter Collection came out just as the price-fixing Net Book Agreement crumbled. The drive to discount Delia played a part in its collapse. And heavy discounting benefits the chains and supermarkets, at the expense of little fish. It hardly matters if BBC Worldwide gives no support to discounters by itself. Without the NBA, it has no legal power to enforce a retail price. The likes of Asda and Tesco can slash the costs of TV tie-in titles, and so do their monopolistic bit to drive small bookshops to the wall.

Wearing one of its hats, the BBC still asks to be treated as a needy public-service cause. Wearing the other, it exploits this statutory role to steamroller its commercial rivals. And cunning Auntie selects her cuddliest chums as stooges. Delia, Michael Palin, David Attenborough: we love these media monarchs far more than any hereditary crew. So, if they truly want a taboo-busting fight, perhaps those anti-Diana dissidents should be training their guns on Broadcasting, not Buck, House.