As unheralded arrivals go, it hardly ranked with the parachute landings and jet-ski leaps that might have satisfied James Bond. But the London Book Fair still staged a small turn-up for its own appointments book yesterday. The latest chronicler of 007 encountered another sort of chief: not M, but PM.
Sebastian Faulks, who has moved on from bestselling novels of real wars such as Birdsong to write a new Bond fantasy with the blessing of the Ian Fleming estate, was due to speak at the publishing world's annual trading frenzy at Earls Court. So he did, except that the boot shifted unannounced to the other foot. Faulks - flanked by a yellow bouquet vast enough to hide an entire armoury of Smersh's secret weapons - interviewed an unscheduled guest about books, writers and the value of reading: Gordon Brown.
The Prime Minister did say 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 nodded to another king of crime, Raymond Chandler, although just at the moment a salute to the author of The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye could possibly misfire.
More surprisingly, Mr Brown came out as a 1950s-vintage Angry Young Man. "I was coming alive just after [John Osborne's] Look Back in Anger," he reminded us. Among that cohort of brooding, volatile outsiders determined to overthrow the snooty London establishment, he enjoyed Room at the Top, by John Braine, and Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. (Not, some of us noticed, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.) The young Brown even warmed to Kingsley 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 out most literary premier since Churchill. He spoke of growing up in that legendary Kirkaldy manse, "surrounded by books. Every room in the house was full of them." And he referred to his long hospital ordeal after his sight was damaged in a school rugby accident, dependent for a while on the RNIB Talking Books service. Last year, he even managed to publish his book of portraits of the brave, Courage, just before taking office. "Most politicians," said 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. Brown in this laid-back mood, which we very seldom see, could put the Tories through the shredder in the Commons.
The Independent asked the former historian, who in his youth wrote a first-rate study of Clydeside labour leader James Maxton, whether he planned ever to return to historical biography. Well, FD Roosevelt also fascinates him, as does Lloyd George: "These were people who came to very bold decisions which turned out to be right decisions." Maxton, his youthful hero, fought against shocking child mortality in Glasgow slums. Brown now backs similar campaigns, especially in Africa: "It's the same things that make me angry." Yet Maxton the inspired orator and organised 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 fan of Maxton now needs a touch of Bond.Reuse content