The Diary: From the sublime to the ridiculous in one week

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I SIT in a room lined with books in my house in Manchester, so full of books that there is not enough room for them. My flat in London overflows with more books, and my office in the House of Commons is almost submerged with them. I have lived my life with books. And now, as newly announced chairman of the Booker Prize judges for 1999, I am to sit in judgement over books. That is what one of my books - volume one of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary - tells me is an apotheosis.

I used to spend so many hours in Sheepscar Library, Leeds, that my parents would come in search of me. As a teenager, like any Leeds teenager, I hated to get up in the morning. Yet, at the call up the stairs by my mother of "Your book's come," I would rush down instantly to open the monthly package from the World Book Club.

These days I am sent lots of books to review. Other books are sent to me by publishers for comment or simply on spec. I tear my nails on the cardboard packaging or rip open the jiffy bag, scattering the strange substance used as padding so that it litters the floor. It is impossible for me to be blase about books. I even write them.

I find that all true bibliomanes are like me: addicts. If I review a book favourably, I win a friend for life. If I review a book unfavourably, reactions can vary. Last Thursday I ran into John Mortimer at Sheekey's Restaurant, St Martin's Court. Recently I panned his latest novel; yet he was cordiality personified. Other authors who have suffered the rough edge of my pen, such as Noel Annan and Janet Neel, have accepted my barbs with equanimity.

Yet there is one author, a book of whose I reviewed unfavourably, who cut me dead the first time I met him after my notice appeared and who ever since has continued to raise his chin and avert his eyes on the many occasions we have encountered one another. I have learnt from his example, and now treat those who write harshly about me with simpering sycophancy; after all, there may be a next time.

Now my opinions - together with those of my fellow judges, whose names will be announced shortly - will influence not only sales but also the bestowing of cash prizes. I am only too aware not only of the responsibility but of the inevitable subjectivity of the decisions I should have to make.

I have tackled the six novels shortlisted for this year's Booker Prize and found two of them almost unreadable, two of them brilliant, and the remainder in between. I will not say which were which. I have no doubt that the verdict of next year's judges will similarly be challenged by their successors. Meanwhile, I prepare myself for the task of deciding the fates of 1999's scores of entries. I can hardly wait.

THE PREPARATIONS for President Clinton's visit to Israel and the Palestinian Autonomous Area have provided opportunities for the latest bout of shifty - that is not a misprint, though the alternative reading would be perfectly apposite - tergiversations by Israel's prime minister, the ineffable Bibi Netanyahu. His halting of troop withdrawals from the West Bank because of violence in the occupied territories involving Palestinians reminds me of a dinner I once attended at the London Press Club.

Chairing the proceedings was Hugh Cudlipp, editorial director of the Daily Mirror, and the greatest popular journalist in this country, as I had good cause to know during the nine years I worked for him. Harold Lever, a Labour treasury minister at the time (and a prominent member of the Jewish community) was guest speaker. Lever expounded his view that the government should not be over-preoccupied with the then current balance- of-payments deficit, on the grounds that the nation's creditors would have to help Britain out if they hoped for their loans to be repaid. At the end of Lever's speech, Cudlipp commented: "Now I know the difference between us Welsh and the Jews. The Welsh regard being in debt as a humiliation. The Jews regard it as an opportunity."

Netanyahu's Likud-dominated government regards every outbreak of violence among Palestinians as an opportunity. Having no desire whatever to complete the Oslo peace process, and even being disinclined to adhere to the Wye Plantation Interim Agreement to which they signed up, the Likud seize with alacrity and almost with glee on every opportunity to procrastinate.

This approach is not only evil but idiotic. A few weeks ago I participated in a conference organised by the Palestinians at Ramallah, near to which violence erupted last week. Yasser Arafat was sitting close to me, and I saw for myself the deterioration in his health - including the trembling of his lower lip - which led him the other day to talk ominously about his own limited life expectancy.

During my stay in Ramallah and a trip across Israel to Gaza, I witnessed, too, the daily tribulations to which Palestinians are subjected by the Israeli authorities, and which made me surprised not that violence takes place but that there is not more of it. At the conference I told the Palestinians how much I admired their patience. But that patience is not limitless.

Netanyahu and his crew habitually set out to humiliate Arafat. Yet they need him far more than he needs them. If he goes, the possibility is that large numbers of Palestinians will transfer their allegiance from Arafat's PLO, on the grounds that it has failed to deliver sufficiently, to the extremist and fundamentalist Hamas. Then Netanyahu will learn what violence really means, especially from a source that will never make the commitment to try to contain violence to which Arafat has put his name.

UNTIL A few days ago, I was ready to cite Saving Private Ryan as my top film of 1998, with Buffalo 66 and Funny Games as runners up. That was before I happened to flip through television channels with my remote control and chance upon the current commercial for Gap Kids.

This short item is one of the most dazzling examples of movie-making that I have seen for years. The sweetness and charm of the dancing kids is enhanced, indeed transfigured, by ravishing visual effects and cute camera angles. This is the kind of pictorial imaginativeness bestowed by the photographer Richard Avedon on the Astaire musical Funny Face, made even more delirious by digital trickery. I wish they would list times of transmission so that I could catch it more often.

It is a cliche to say that commercials on this level are incomparably superior to most of the actual programmes available on ITV. But cliches are cliches because they are true.

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