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Despite the vogue for 'difficult' fiction, the Diary is not alone in enjoying a good novel not written in code. I'm not saying that Martin Amis's Time's Arrow, for example, is not an interesting book, and at least it is not as impenetrable as, say, Ulysses; but to get through it, it helps to be sitting with an ice block on your head and a stack of reference books by your side.

Later this month the Diary will be standing glass in hand as the Society of Authors announces this year's winner of the Betty Trask award, presented to first novelists under the age of 35. Fortunately, the only ice will be in my glass, since the nature of this award is at odds with today's judging criteria ('Can anyone understand this book? No? Give it first prize.') Because Miss Trask was of the old school of writing, she insisted that her award should be given only for 'romantic, traditional and non-experimental' fiction. To give you a flavour of her work, here is an extract from Love Has Wings:

'They walked across the grass together, chuckling. Joy was conscious of Cyril beside her, his covert glances, the fact that every now and then his shoulder just touched hers.'

(In 1990, Robert McLiam Wilson took this sensualism a bit further, using bad language in his book Ripley Bogle, much to the horror of the critics. He still won.)

This year, I can reveal, there won't be any controversy, but there will be a bit of history. For the first time since the awards started in 1984, the judges (chaired by Joanna Trollope) have decided that female romantic writers are no longer what they were. The winners of this year's top three prizes are men.

So farewell Dame Barbara Cartland? I wouldn't say that, although Mark Le Fanu, the general secretary of the Society of Authors, was a bit hazy, when I met him yesterday, about what she was up to these days. He didn't know whether she was a member, 'although she did ring the other day. I thought it was my brother-in-law.'

I REALLY am worried about David Mellor. Last week he defended the compact disc industry, declaring that the controversial pounds 2 levy was a small price to pay for today's 'golden age of choice' But then, turning to the Sunday Express, we read the former Secretary of State for National Heritage returning to the subject of choice, this time taking a different tack. 'I get excited by seeing things that are normally pounds 13.49 reduced to pounds 7.99,' he says, carrier bags packed with cut-price CDs. 'For me, part of the joy of collecting is not paying the full price.'


The British National Space Centrehas an annual budget of about pounds 170m of taxpayers' money. We've all heard of it. Haven't we? Feeling unsure about this, the Diary has been making some inquiries. In the past, the centre's former director general, Arthur Pryor, has been rather backward in giving interviews; However, with a new man in charge, Derek Davis, the Diary scented a new era and pushed for an interview. No joy. Davis won't talk, 'until he's got his feet under the table'.

While he does so, we thought we would ask the press office a few questions. How many people work there, for example? 'That's a good question,' a spokesman said. 'We suspect around 200.' Suspect? (What we do know is that 20 per cent of the workforce are not involved in scientific research: they are administrators, presumably working out ways of spending the budget.)

All we can offer you therefore is news about what Mr Pryor is up to these days. He is running an audit on what senior staff at the Department of Trade and Industry are expected to do.

NEXT MONTH Tony Cape publishes his next novel, an event of some interest, given forecasts he has made in his previous two works. In the first, The Cambridge Theorem, Cape forecast the unveiling of a Fifth Man. In the second, The Last Defector, he

wrote about a radical Russian leader who was ousted in a coup

by Communist hardliners before being placed under house arrest for betraying the Soviet Union. (The August coup took place

in the very week that the book was published).

In his new book, Triple Cross, the Tories are disenchanted with their leader and a right-wing group plans to take power with Baroness Thatcher at the helm. With Cape's record . . .


12 May 1937 Chips Channon describes in his diary the Coronation of George VI at Westminster Abbey: 'Opposite me, near the throne, sat the eight representatives of the Free Churches, like crows at a feast, in their drab 'Elders of the Kirk' black cloth. They looked so glum and disapproving that they reminded me of the present Government as it sat decreeing the Abdication, relentless, perhaps right, but forbidding. The sun shone through the windows and the King looked boyish suddenly. Then it was the Queen's turn, and followed by her train-bearers, she advanced towards the altar. Once again the Golden Canopy was brought forward. The second Service was shorter and soon she mounted her throne. And my thoughts travelled back to the old days when I called her 'Elizabeth' and was a little in love with her.'