Literary elite in turmoil over peer's appointment

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The Independent Culture

As Cabinet Secretary, he famously tried to ban a book. Now the unlikely appointment of Lord Armstrong of Ilminster as the new president of one of London's most elite literary bodies has plunged it into turmoil.

The man who attempted to stop the publication of Spycatcher and has never written a book is an unusual figurehead for the 200-year old Literary Society, a dining club which counts Sir Tom Stoppard, Baroness James of Holland Park and Sir Vidiadhar Naipaul among its current members.

It has already led to angry exchanges over the claret at the last meeting and rumours of an unprecedented leadership challenge. Yesterday, it was confirmed that one of the younger members, Robert Harris, the best-selling author of Pompeii, had resigned in protest.When Lord Armstrong took the chair for the first time at the January meeting there were mutterings of surprise and an outburst from Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, former editor of The Sunday Telegraph.

Rumours have circulated that Philip Zeigler, the biographer of Mountbatten, or the historian Sir Raymond Carr may stand if there were an election - itself a break with tradition. One member said: "Several of us would like Sir Tom, because he seems an appropriate figure and he's a bit glitzy, but he hardly ever comes.''

Although members have been asked not to speak to the media, some did speak anonymously. "I don't think Armstrong is the right person at all because he's never written a book and actually helped to try and get one banned, '' said one.

However, it was admitted that being president is not the most onerous of positions, largely consisting of presiding at the monthly dinners and asking members whether they wish to nominate anyone to join, after which a vote is taken. "That's partially the problem," one member said. "I don't know how Lord Armstrong was asked to join. It was probably a night when just a few of his friends showed up."

The Society's secretary, Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson, defended the decision yesterday. "We spoke to a number of people about becoming president and some said no, but Lord Armstrong was happy to do it. The majority of the membership are perfectly happy with the choice.'' He added that he did not believe there should be an election for president. "It would make it all a bit too heavy, there would be canvassing and all that kind of thing. It's only a dining club after all.''

Lord Armstrong himself is reported as saying that he was "happy" about an election and that if he was fit to be a member, he was fit to be president. And even if he never does write a book, Lord Armstrong has a lasting contribution to the English language to his name. It was he who said he had been "economical with the truth".