Books: Missing the bus when a great poet leaves

A Week in Books: The dumbed-down BBC gets bookish again
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AFTER LOSING transmission rights to the Booker Prize (along with the cricket, the football, and almost every other national event save the Trooping of the Colour), the BBC plans to raise the profile of the Whitbread book awards. In January, live TV coverage will reveal both the sectional and the overall winners. The various Whitbread category shortlists emerged yesterday and, even now, some producer will be despatching a crew down to Brixton garage for the obligatory shots of Magnus Mills in the cab of his 159 bus.

Mills's The Restraint of Beasts appears on the first-novel list, alongside Giles Foden's The Last King of Scotland, Gavin Kramer's delirious Brits- in-Tokyo satire Shopping and Luke Sutherland's Jelly Roll. Foden's setting, of course, is not Scotland but the Uganda of Amin. Jelly Roll's hero is a black jazz saxophonist - but it takes place in the Highlands. Let's hope the TV presenters stay sober.

Meanwhile, the general fiction shortlist offers a three-cornered fight between Barbara Trapido's serious comedy The Travelling Hornplayer (nautically mistitled The Travelling Hornblower by Whitbread's PR), Ronan Bennett's Congo-located excursion into Greeneland, The Catastrophist, and Justin Cartwright's Leading the Cheers (see review above). The children's contest will pit J K Rowling's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - the people's choice, by any yardstick - against James Riordan's Blitz-set story of a boy's triumph over trauma, Sweet Clarinet, David Almond's tale of a cobweb-covered angel, Skellig, and the strong meat of Abomination - Robert Swindells's dark account of a fundamentalist upbringing.

The trio of biographical contenders includes John Bayley's memoir of his life with Iris Murdoch, Amanda Foreman's resurrection of another scandalous Spencer, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and the first part of Ian Kershaw's magisterial life of Hitler. In the poets' corner, Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters picks up an almost inevitable nomination. Opposing it are Paul Farley's super-cool debut The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You and Philip Gross's verse account of his daughter's battle with anorexia, The Wasting Game.

Perhaps, on the night, the BBC will do better by Ted Hughes than it managed with the main evening news on the day of his death. Then, a perfunctory report on him closed the bulletin in the traditional skateboarding-duck slot. It trailed far behind a long package about how John Glenn's space flight had "caught the imagination of Americans". The imagination of the mere Brits who buy Hughes in their hundreds of thousands be damned, I suppose. An old Yank in a tin can tops a great poet any day. For this we pay the licence fee?