Come out, as the PM said to the bishop

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The Independent Online
Today I am happy to bring you a round-up of some of the new autumn books, with a brief review of each one.

Waiting For Bishop Wright To Come Along: A Life of the Bishop of Oban by Humphrey Carpenter, Bible Belt Books, pounds 19.99.

Humphrey Carpenter's new life of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Oban would normally have attracted little attention (how few of us knew that there were any Catholic bishops in Scotland? And how few of those few would have bought a book about one?) had not the Bishop of Oban gone missing at the very time the book came out.

Theories to explain the vanishing are rife. Some say that it is all a big publicity scam to boost sales. Others say that the Bishop of Oban is so embarrassed by what he "burbled" into Carpenter's mike that he has gone missing until the fuss dies down.

But is the conversation in the book really so embarrassing? Certainly, the bishop says he wishes he was married with lots of children. Certainly he says that the present Pope is a disaster and probably dead anyway. Certainly he says he is not sure whether God exists or not. But what top Catholic cleric doesn't say all this today? Come back, bish! You've nothing to worry about!

Emma - The Sequel by Edna O'Brien, Riverdance Press, pounds 19.99.

A powerfully inventive attempt to write a sequel to Jane Austen's novel, in which Edna O'Brien imagines the heroine marrying Mr Knightley, emigrating to Ireland and getting involved in the small-time, Catholic-guilt-ridden, country life of Victorian Limerick.

Into this land of guilt and incest and potato harvests and poverty and grim domination by the priests comes the mysterious figure of a man called "The Bishop". Who is he? What is he trying to escape from? Is there any truth in the rumour that he really is a Scottish Catholic bishop on the run? Is he actually gay? And if so, who is the mysterious woman on the run with him?

Behind Closed Doors by Norma Major, Downing Street Books, pounds 19.99.

Norma Major has flung wide open the doors of No 10 Downing Street and welcomed the public in, in this entrancing tour of her temporary home.

We see the mirror in front of which Edward Heath used to hold a baton and practise conducting ("without actually listening to any music, or consulting a score!", Norma naughtily reveals, "- he just stood there and watched himself!").

We see the nail marks made on the table during Mrs Thatcher's cabinet meetings, we see the cupboard where Harold Wilson kept spare knighthoods to hand out to old friends who dropped in unexpectedly, and we even get a glimpse of the priest's hole where, unbeknown to anyone, the Bishop of Oban was concealed for some weeks in the summer of 1996. Well done, Norma!

Notes From a Small Archbishop by Bill Bryson, Granta Guides, pounds 19.99.

Bill Bryson has had the enterprising idea, after all his long-distance travel books, of going on a quiet trip round Robert Runcie, finding some nooks and crannies and old, long-forgotten ideas, that most of us had no idea existed. A letter from Humphrey Carpenter, for instance, saying, "Dear Robert, I think the book needs spicing up a bit. How about some gossipy stuff about Charles and Diana? You could always say afterwards that you don't remember saying it, and that it was off the record anyway!! Incidentally, have you ever considered doing a sequel to Jane Austen's Emma? Might keep you occupied!" Written with the usual Bryson brio.

Pip Emma by Robert Harris, Enigma Books, pounds 19.99.

An extraordinarily ambitious novel in which Robert Harris imagines that the great-great-grandson of Jane Austen's "Emma" becomes archbishop of England and cracks the code in which the Bible is written, thus discovering truths about God and the world that make him temporarily unbalanced, so much so that he blurts a lot of them out to a journalist called Humphrey who has actually only called to interview him about Labour's plans to divorce the trade unions.

Humphrey then turns these secrets into a best-selling book which lands him in a whole heap of trouble. He then finds himself on the run from a hitman, and he teams up with a runaway Catholic bishop down on his luck....

Anyway, soon to be a major movie, presumably.

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