HRH does it by the book to tour literary London

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The Independent Culture

The Long Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace hummed and seethed with 600 representatives of British publishing last night, as the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh met a cross-section of the publishers, agents, book-sellers, writers and journalists who make literary society the hotbed of competition, jealous rivalry, scandal and gossip that it is.

The Long Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace hummed and seethed with 600 representatives of British publishing last night, as the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh met a cross-section of the publishers, agents, book-sellers, writers and journalists who make literary society the hotbed of competition, jealous rivalry, scandal and gossip that it is.

Under the magnificent old masters - the Raphaels and Poussins, the Vermeers and Giottos - provincial shop owners, poets, arts council administrators and media luminaries sank gin and tonic, ate atrocious cheesy biscuits and wondered about their place in the bookish hierarchy.

"A Reception for the British Book World," the invitation had said. But how had the Royal Household decided on these 600 people? And what about the inner sanctum of the Music Room and the Blue and White Drawings Rooms, where specially chosen celebrity bookpersons (Sheridan Morley, Antonia Fraser, Melvyn Bragg, Jilly Cooper, Deborah Moggach, PD James) were being introduced to the royal couple?

Just how grand or successful did you have to be to get in there?

No one was sure if the initiative for the big day had come from the Palace, the Society of Authors or some solitary bookish maverick. Most agreed it was the royal couple's desire to examine a whole industry in one day, as they have done already with the theatre world and the City (Who'll be next? Spot-welders?) And the favoured invitees beamed with pleasure at finding themselves inside Buck House. Douglas ( Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) Adams, not a noted monarchist, flew in from Santa Barbara to be there.

The Queen, in a sensible red dress with black accessories, must have gained an odd impression of British writers from the eclectic throng that pressed forward to meet her.

The children's writer Nicholas Allan informed his sovereign that his book, The Queen's Knickers, was a big seller. "What fun," said the Queen, guardedly. "And I understand that many readers have bought pairs of knickers to send to the palace," Allan continued. "What fun for my ladies-in-waiting," remarked the Queen.

Penelope Lively reminisced with her about the opening of the British Library. Ronald Harwood hoped she'd actually been given some books by the publishing trade. Jan Morris, the Welsh doyenne of travel writing, chatted with her about climbing Everest. And Jamie Byng, from the Scottish publisher Canongate, pressed into the black-gloved royal hands a copy of his firm's Snowblind: A Brief Career in the Cocaine Trade, (special edition designed by Damien Hirst) which was quickly fielded by a tough-looking security man.

When the inner sanctum was flung open, several hundred of us B-list book types hung nonchalantly around the grand drawing rooms, hoping the royal presence would tack our way. The Duke appeared with disconcerting suddenness in the middle of a knot of publishers, rattled off a fusillade of disconcertingly up-to-the-minute inquiries about websites and desk-top publishing, boasted about his copy of the Mainz Psalter (the second book printed in Europe after the Gutenburg Bible) and vamoosed. He was a lesson in how to work a room.

The royal progress began at 10.40am with the royal couple's visit to Bloomsbury, the top independent British publisher run by Nigel Newton and Liz Calder. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were introduced to the novelist Joanna Trollope and the publishing phenomenon that is J K Rowling. The Queen told Ms Rowling she had been a "voracious" reader in childhood, and that one of her granddaughters was a Harry Potter fan.

The Duke met Charles Black of A&C Black, who publish Who's Who, the Almanac de Gotha of the British establishment. Later, they visited Waterstones in Piccadilly, the world's largest bookshop ("Big place you have here," said the Duke, "Hope you can afford the rent") where the Queen looked at gardening books and chatted to a visiting Brownie pack.

Then on to a school in Bethnal Green with the poet laureate Andrew Motion, and a trip to Pimlico Library. It was a more energetic working day than most members of the "British Book World" have experienced in years.

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