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Sunday 17 October 2010


My husband takes solace in the works of David Hume. He finds something reassuring in the great sceptic philosopher’s prose. It is true, of course, as Julian Baggini and others have pointed out, that Hume was pre-soundbite. My husband says the prose is nearly hypnotic, like hearing the click of a verbal abacus.

I tend more to hearing the civilized whirr of a privileged 18th Century mind – never knowingly oversold, as it were.

Hume is famous on several counts. One is his remarkably brief autobiography, My Own Life. At just ten pages long it is, on one level, anti-Proust – at another, anti much detail at all, once a rigorous process of selection has been applied.

Hume’s life is a literary life. As one of the first, possibly the first, man of letters to make a living from 
writing books (his histories sold more than his philosophical works) he describes what he calls the ‘vanity’ 
 involved in writing an autobiography:  ‘It is difficult for a man to speak long of himself without vanity; 
therefore I shall be short.’ 
This is not all puff. Overegging it a little, he describes, his first work as having fallen ‘still-born’ 
from the press. 

Hume, of course, was not given any literary awards – they are a more recent invention. And of course, they vary. The Nobel Prize, recently given to Mario Vargas Llosa, is big. The Booker, recently given to Howard Jacobsen, is big in Britain.

But there are others. And I have recently been nominated for the Ellis Peter Awards (along with five other writers, two of whom have already won the award before). The Ellis Peters awards are for historical – that is now minus at least 35 years – crime fiction.

My attitude is – I really am very grateful to be nominated at all.

But it has struck me that ‘history’ is a long time. I think my Washington Shadow is the most recent in terms of setting (1945) – three of the shortlisted books are set in Tudor times. All historical novels, of course, reflect the present to a greater or lesser degree. Whether they mention doublets or zoot suits, they all have an angle on now.

And I suppose what I am really saying is that I am increasingly conscious of why the past matters. The attitudes of the nineteen forties in Britain, what I will call the non-funding of sometimes admirable, sometimes over-ambitious things, sticks to us now. For the last sixty years Britain’s efforts to remain a world power but with a degree of social justice have proved … let’s call it expensive.

Good luck – I mean it – to the other short listed writers.

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