Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

As unheralded arrivals go, it hardly ranked with the parachute landings and jetski leaps that might have satisfied James Bond. But the London Book Fair still staged a memorable turn-up for its own appointments book at Earls Court on Monday afternoon. The latest chronicler of 007 encountered another sort of chief: not M, but PM.

Sebastian Faulks, who has moved on from bestselling novels of actual wars such as Birdsong and Charlotte Gray to write the forthcoming Bond fantasia, Devil May Care, was due to speak at the British publishing world's annual trading frenzy. And so he did, except that the boot shifted unannounced to the other foot. Faulks – flanked by a yellow bouquet vast enough to hide an armoury of Smersh's secret weapons – interviewed an unscheduled guest of the fair about books, writers and the value of reading: Gordon Brown.

The Prime Minister did admit that he had read "most of the James Bond novels a long time ago", as well as repeating his admiration for a fellow-Fifer: Ian Rankin, the creator of Inspector Rebus. He also nodded to another king of crime, Raymond Chandler. Just at the moment, the spin doctors might fear, a salute to the author of The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye could conceivably misfire.

More surprisingly, Brown came out as a slightly belated Angry Young Man. "I was coming alive just after [John Osborne's] Look Back in Anger," he reminded us. Among that cohort of darkly brooding outsiders determined to overthrow the snooty London Establishment, he enjoyed Room at the Top by John Braine (but of course!), and Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. (No mention, we noticed, of the same author's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner). The younger Brown even warmed to the elder Amis, circa Lucky Jim: "before he got to his 'more means worse' phase, his elitist phase: Kingsley Amis the radical".

Brown is often tagged as our most literary premier since Churchill. Whereas the latter inherited the canon as a latter-day Augustan grandee, the premier grafted public-sector autodidacticism on to the bookish legacy of that famous Kirkcaldy manse. He spoke of growing up "surrounded by books. Every room in the house was full of them."

He referred to the hospital ordeal after his sight was a damaged in a rugby accident, dependent for a while on the RNIB Talking Book service. And he hailed the Bookstart programme – very much his baby – which places books in the hands of every beginning reader. "It is right to encourage reading. It is right to intervene early." Laissez-faire? Not when it comes to spreading the written word.

Last year, Brown managed to publish his book of pen-portraits of the brave, Courage, just before reaching No 10. "Most politicians," remarked Faulks, "write intolerably boring memoirs when they retire." "I can do it when I'm in office as well," shot back the other half of this impromptu double act. When Brown is in this laid-back mood, he could put the Tories through the shredder in the Commons. There, he never is, and never does.

I asked the Prime Minister, a former Edinburgh University researcher who once wrote a first-rate study of the Clydeside labour leader James Maxton, whether he planned ever to return to historical biography. Well, FD Roosevelt fascinates him, as do Churchill and Lloyd George: "These were people who came to very bold decisions which turned out to be right decisions." Interesting. Yet Maxton the inspired orator and organiser had one fatal flaw. Someone said, reported the PM, that "he had every quality except one: the gift of knowing how to succeed". Maybe the disciple of Maxton now needs the escape skills of Bond.