A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
This doesn’t pretend to be a definitive record of the 2011 RNA/Pure Passion Awards ceremony. It is, rather, a very personal (and highly idiosyncratic) ‘view from here’ – but I hope I’ve managed to convey just a little of how (slightly) surreal, entertaining, friendly and completely knackering it all was …
It’s hard to imagine a classier address than “One Whitehall Place” – the home of the National Liberal Club. Gladstone laid the foundation stone in 1882 and Alfred Waterhouse’s grandiose, neo-gothic pile was finally completed in 1887. In its 120 year history it’s seen schism, skullduggery, decline and rebirth. Lloyd George and Winston Churchill were such personae non gratae during the acrimonious Liberal Party rift in 1916-1923 that the Club refused to hang their portraits (oh, the scandal …); the Luftwaffe made a nasty mess of the famous marble staircase during the Blitz and in the 1970s the plausible conman George de Chabris flogged the entire contents of the Library – 35,000 books and 30,000 pamphlets – to the University of Bristol for a derisory £40,000.
In 1985, the club sold off a substantial chunk of itself (140 bedrooms from the third floor to the eighth floor, two vast ballrooms plus the Gladstone Library) to the adjoining Royal Horseguards Hotel, which is why, on the 7th of March this year, its marbled halls echoed with the voices of nearly 190 over-excited (and in just one or two cases, just everso slightly less than sober) romantic novelists, publishers, literary agents and assorted guests as it hosted the 2011 RNA/Pure Passion Awards.
Festivities were due to kick off at 4.00pm, so I caught the early train from the Lake District and fetched up at the New Cavendish Club (the favoured London watering hole of RNA members) at lunchtime. Happily for little cheapskate me, Katie Fforde (Chair of the RNA) and Catherine Jones (former Chair and now Press Officer) were about to head off to the Royal Horseguards early, so I grabbed a sandwich (one of Catherine’s actually …) hauled on the glad rags and the heels and climbed into their taxi – which very nearly made it to the hotel.
“I think you’d better walk …”.
Walking is fine. I do it all the time – in jeans and sensible lace-up shoes. Walking in high heels and a knee-length skirt is an advanced skill which escaped me years ago, so by the time we reached the hotel I was exhausted from the sheer effort of simultaneously walking in a straight line and staying upright. I also discovered that the (insanely sumptuous) ladies’ loos were up ANOTHER spiral staircase (right), which was a staircase too far, and why I spent most of the rest of the day in that glitzy and august assemblage walking around in my stockinged feet. Glamour be damned. There’s nothing glamorous about crashing to the deep-pile carpet and showing your knickers to the world.
When you arrive at an awards ceremony an hour-and-some early, there’s no-one there except the Committee members – running around alternating firefighting with being charming to everyone, the helpful grunts like me – who are doing all the putting and taking, arranging and stacking, and the shortlisted authors, all sitting around waiting for their photos to be taken and trying to pretend they’re uber-cool about the whole thing. (You failed, guys!) So, after I’d dutifully stacked the shortlisted books on little wobbly tables, stuck ‘Pure Passion’ labels on everything that didn’t move and hidden the decorative tilework on the scrolled pillars with multiple posters, I had a chance to take in my surroundings a little more carefully.
My first thought was of Bertie Wooster, who said that the Victorians couldn’t be trusted around a pile of bricks and a trowel . . .
The NLR is pure Alfred Waterhouse – the sort of heavy neo-Gothic architecture that’s so hideous it’s absolutely magnificent. Everywhere you look there are murals depicting classical scenes, massive pillars covered in embossed ceramic tiles, more tiles on the walls – from floor to ceiling; in fact the whole thing puts you unnervingly in mind of an up-market bus station or public convenience. Sorry, but it does. It’s the tiling.
There is indeed a story – possibly apocryphal, but I DO hope not – that a Conservative politician took to calling in every day on his way to the House of Commons, to use the club’s loos. When the hall porter reeled him in one day and asked if he was actually a member of the club, he is supposed to have replied: “Good God! You mean it’s a club as well?”
And then there’s that staircase: lined with portraits of the Great and the Good, rebuilt after the war at ruinous expense and, as anyone in the place will tell you if you stand still for longer than 30 seconds, the largest unsupported marble staircase in Europe. I gazed at it at length, trying to work out what was actually holding it up, and in the end decided it was Art. Well, possibly Physics too – but chiefly Art. (Joke credit: Douglas Adams.)
Gradually, the Reading and Writing Room – where the pre-Awards Reception was being held – began to fill up, the champagne started to flow and the noise levels started to rise.
The Master of Ceremonies – Tim Bentinck (David in The Archers) – arrived with his lovely and talented wife Judy (a superb milliner, in case you didn’t know – take a look). Tim was ‘fresh’ off a plane from New Zealand, and looking remarkably chipper for a man who’d just spent the last 26 hours travelling from the other side of the world.
Tim’s appointment as MC came about by a bit of a circuitous route …
Back in 2010, when I was one of the judges of the Romantic Novel of the Year Award, Katie Fforde very kindly invited me to dinner with fellow Book Fox, actor Jay Benedict and his wife and business partner Phoebe. That dinner eventually led to an invitation to Jay to be a judge of the 2011 award, and when the RNA were looking for a Master of Ceremonies, Jay immediately suggested his old friend Tim Bentinck. It was all very incestuous, really.
When the two of them met at the Reception, there was a totally surreal moment. The conversation went something like this:
TB: There’s a portrait of you on the stairs …!
JB: I know, we saw it.
The portrait is, in fact, of Lord Melbourne – unfortunate husband of Lady Caroline Lamb, Prime Minister during Queen Victoria’s early years on the throne and a man so laid back it was rumoured he had subsumed the whole of the Ten Commandments into just one: “Thou Shalt Not Bother”.
In fact, unbeknown to Tim, Jay actually played Lord Melbourne in a Channel 4 documentary – Queen Victoria’s Men – a role he was encouraged to pursue by Phoebe when she spotted the truly uncanny physical resemblance …
But I’m wandering off the point, as usual.
At the allotted time, we were all shunted into the stunning Gladstone Library – balconied, pillared, sumptuously appointed. The only thing it lacked was books. There appeared to be books, but they were all fakes of course – the originals now being safely installed in Bristol (see opening paragraph). The Library was decked out in purple and glitz for the occasion, with large screens the better to see the awards, a public address system the better to hear them – and FOOD. Canapes. Dozens of them. Followed by exotic meringues served in a darkened room, with sparklers. It grieved me that some of the attendees didn’t touch their meringues and they were left there, unloved and uneaten. I did vaguely wonder if I could snaffle another without anyone noticing and yelling “Pig!” … but decorum won the day, this time.
The speeches and awards were accompanied by video presentations, and the jaw-dropping facts and figures preceding the two Outstanding Achievement Awards to Penny Jordan and Josephine Cox (racking up between them over 100 million copies, 220 books, in umpteen countries and heaven alone knows how many languages) provided all the explanation you need for why romantic fiction is on the receiving end of so much disdain in certain quarters. It sells – and it sells massively, because it’s what people want to read. And they just hate that, don’t they?
The awards ceremony over, hardly anyone want to leave – so in the Churchill Bar the ability to lift a glass to your lips without moving your elbows came in very handy. Eventually, at around 7.00pm, a good number of us repaired to the One Twenty One Two Restaurant to carry on partying, but unfortunately by then the jet-lagged Tim Bentinck, who’d held it all together heroically throughout the ceremony, was doing a passable imitation of a man who’d walked into a plate glass door, and Judy took him home for a nice long lie down in a darkened room. They missed a fabulous meal and a lovely evening, but as none of us particularly wanted to fish the poor man out of his soup – it was the only sensible thing to do.
And the perfect end to a perfect day? Getting (politely) thrown out of the restaurant when the staff wanted to go to bed … and hitching a lift back to the New Cavendish in Katie and Catherine’s taxi.
Timing is everything.
The Winners of the Pure Passion Awards, 2011:
Romantic Novel of the Year: Jojo Moyes – The Last Letter from Your Lover.
Lifetime Achievement Awards: Penny Jordan and Josephine Cox.
Historical Novel of the Year: Elizabeth Chadwick – To Defy a King.
Romantic Comedy of the Year: Jill Mansell – Take a Chance on Me.
Love Story of the Year: Louise Allen – The Piratical Miss Ravenshurst.
If you’d like to see photographs of the Pure Passion Awards – you’ll find a nice selection at the RNA’s photogallery.
On Friday, Jay will be joining us with a review of Jojo Moyes’ winning novel – The Last Letter from Your Lover.
(The two photographs of the marble staircase and the Red Tower staircase at the NLC are from pshad’s photostream on Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence. The portrait of William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, is by John Partridge and the original hangs in the National Portrait Gallery – from whom I nicked the image. Mea culpa …)