My Week: Sam Leith, Literary editor, The Daily Telegraph


Ian McEwan has told the Hay Festival that he ‘hates comic novels”, apparently. Odd. What have they ever done to him?

We are all very keen on blogging at the moment, so I contribute a post to our book blog Paper Tiger. It attracts two comments, one from a colleague. But not one, disappointingly, from the anonymous controversialist who once commented beneath one of my columns for the paper, ‘I eat poo.”


We’re gearing up to give an editorial push to Ways With Words, the much-better-than-Hay-so-there festival we sponsor at Dartington in Devon later this summer.

With the help of a very able trainee, we’ve rung round writers asking for favourite festival memories. Most – especially WWW veterans – are hymn sunshine, conviviality, lively debate and so on. Will Self’s response is my favourite. He says book festivals are ‘the Nuremberg rallies of the contemporary bourgeoisie”.

In the evening, I go to Carcanet’s launch for Christopher Middleton’s Collected Poems in Covent Garden: A tiny bookshop crammed full of poets in ill-fitting trousers, drinking white wine. It’s lovely. My friend Stuart Kelly, the books editor of Scotland on Sunday, is there. We go to the pub and have our traditional conversation about Mark Z Danielewski and Dr Who.


Inconveniently, the organisers of the Orange Prize have let it coincide with our press day. I’m up to my ears in proofs for much of the day. Late on, there’s a panic – arts need to know the height of Derek Walcott for their vital ‘How Tall?’feature in Review. Michael Schmidt emails a nearly-helpful photograph of him standing near Wole Soyinka; I consult the Faber press office without success.

Eventually, someone reaches the office of Jonathan Galassi in New York. ‘6ft 1in?’he guesses. This becomes official.

I get to the Royal Festival Hall late, and already knowing that Rose Tremain has won. This is a colossal relief, though: It’s the only shortlisted book I’ve read, so Murphy’s law, in its benign form, means I’m not asked to write a commenty sidebar for the news report. If anyone else had won, they’d need 600 words.

Reporting book prizes – which I’ve done on occasion – is a slightly cheerless proposition. You tend to miss half or all of the fun because you’re in the office writing the piece under embargo. Tonight is more social.

As I arrive, I find a group of friends skulking in the back: The sainted Deborah Rogers, my agent David Miller, David’s more successful client Emily Maitlis (who has not, contrary to reports, given up parties), and Ravi Mirchandani of Portobello Books.

Orange is fun: More relaxed than Costa or Booker: No black tie; no sit-down. The corporate sponsor – blissfully – says a brisk, gracious hello rather than boring us all rigid about third-quarter growth and brand consolidation. The ceremony takes no more than half an hour.

Absurd – but oddly winning – are the deafening blasts of Eighties’ cock rock that accompany each shortlisted author’s arrival on stage to take a bow. You half expect Rose Tremain to bound up in a skin-tight gladiator suit punching the air and waving a pugil stick.

It has been a good year for women writers. As we are reminded from the stage, AL Kennedy won the Costa, Anne Enright got Man Booker, and Doris Lessing got the Nobel. Making you wonder, as Emily remarks mildly beside me, what Orange is for.  


Mopping-up day. Morning conference for Saturday’s section heads is followed by a whole lot of commissioning, fiddling with next week’s copy, asking for picture searches. It is broken up by a game of ’round the clock’in the cupboard on our new dartboard.

In the evening, Andrew O’Hagan is talking to Gaby Wood about his new book of essays at the London Review Bookshop. I like Andrew and his work both, so I go along. I am slightly awed, once again, by quite how quick he is on his hind legs, conversationally speaking.


My weekend essay crisis really gets underway. I owe Arete magazine 3,000 words on Auden’s prose, The Sunday Telegraph 3,000 words on Pixar’s new movie, The Spectator 1,500 words on Ffion Hague’s book about Lloyd George’s ladies, tomorrow’s Telegraph 850 words on 42-day detention, and – erm ­– Press Gazette 750 words on my week. I’d better get on with it.

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