My love of books gives me little time to read

The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold
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The Independent Online
TIME. However one spells it - time, Time, Ti-me, or, more anagrammatically, mite, emit, item - one is forced to conclude that there is precious little of the stuff around. At the end of a busy day, I like to sit down and leaf through a nice big book, a literary biography, say, or an elegantly phrased history. But after 20 minutes leafing, I find there is absolutely no time left for the more onerous task of reading the damn thing. This makes the chore of selecting one's "Books of the Year" particularly tricky, as there is so little to go on.

Nevertheless, I yield to no one in my love of books. In my "Who's Who" entry, I take pains to list my hobbies as "bookish pleasures". Many of my most fervent admirers among what one might in all good spirit call "the great unwashed" know me best through my appearances on the dread gogglebox in Call My Bluff. There I would put my enviable love of great literature to good use by incorporating it in my cheeky "spoof" definitions of obscure English words.

Who can forget my definition of the word, "Opostoman" as "A brigand or ne'er-do-well, as described by Charles Dickens in this extract from A Tale of Two Cities, and I quote, 'Cease your prattling, woman, for here comes the local opostoman bearing two of the mightiest pistols you ever did see!' " If memory serves, it was my old friend and quiffing partner Lord Lichfield who selected my definition as being correct!

When Uncle Bob Robinson called on one of us to "own up", I expertly drew out the dramatic tension by taking a full one minute 22 seconds reaching for my card. Then, with an immensely humorous mock-grimace, I opened the aforesaid card to reveal that - sure enough - my definition was a brilliant "BLUFF"! Needless to say, the look of astonishment on the face of Norman St John Stevas (as was) when he saw how his team had been hoodwinked was a joy to behold. (Incidentally, is it not high time that Call My B1uff returned to our sets? As a Non-Executive Director of Mirror Group TV, I recently suggested as much to our controller, Mr Kelvin MacKenzie. He suggested we re-christen the programme "Call My Buff", and have Bob Robinson stripping off an item of clothing for every time the wrong word was picked. But I suspect this would cheapen the original spirit of the game, so I am hesitating before nodding it through).

But as I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted by no less a personage than myself(!), it is particularly difficult to select one's "Books of the Year" when one has been unable to find time to read any of the wretched things. Instead, one must rely upon word of mouth, judicious acquaintance, and the pleasure it affords an old scrivener chum to be patted on the back in the public arena.

"In an otherwise bleak year for the English novel" is always, I find, a good way to kick off: it suggests a suitably awe-inspiring breadth of reading. I then like to add, "I have found myself falling back with pleasure on a dear old favourite". At this point, I insert a lengthy 17th-century epic poem available only in its native Russian, Arabic or Portuguese.

A tone of effortless learning having been set, I glide on to a little light autobiography, affording the casual reader an entrancing glimpse of my enviable "lifestyle" (dread word!). "Holidaying in Tuscany recently, I greatly enjoyed reading ..." is a fine opening to one's second sentence, or even better, "Holidaying with the author in Tuscany recently, I greatly enjoyed reading his latest work ..." In the best way, these "Books of the Year" parades constitute thank-you letters of the highest order.

One must then allow the autobiographical slant to continue with little apercus such as, "When last I served my term on the Booker panel, I was struck by the paucity of books relating to South-east Asia, an area I myself know particularly well, having made it all my own with weighty tomes such as Across the Sahara in a Fast Train (Cape, 1982). This year's shortlist was also woefully lacking in Anglo-Irish novels set in large Georgian houses, of the type once inhabited by my great uncle Tobias Arnold, better known as the immortal "Nuncle" in my widely praised classic of the genre, Tis A Funny Old O'World (Constable, 1953).

My New Year's resolution? To read at least one or two of the books I have recommended so heartily this year. Anything recommended so strongly by oneself must surely be worth a glance, methinks.

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