Ladies and gentlemen, it is with huge pleasure – and considerable excitement – that I find myself here again in this eminent company tonight. Like every bibliophile, I always look forward every year to a good discussion about the Man Booker Prize shortlist, although I have to admit, unlike the judges, I haven't read every book yet! But what a task for them! I am sure every one of us would love to have a summer of reading, but the responsibility of tackling a mountain of new fiction with a critical, careful, and consistent eye is quite another matter.
The panel has, of course, risen to that challenge. Between them, they have vast experience, and first among equals is their Chairman, Professor Michael Wood. They have chosen a shortlist which covers an enormous range of literature: from a writer of his first novel to a writer of her twentieth. The books come from widely different cultures and each approaches fiction in a unique and novel way (please excuse the pun...)
Last May I was lucky enough to be at the final of Chris Evans's BBC Radio 2 500 Words Competition. More than 120,000 children from all over the country sent in entries and I was astounded by the range and quality of the finalists. Their stories were imaginative, thoughtful, funny, zany and sad and every one in its own way was a winner.
Those children already have a head start. They have mastered the skills of reading and writing which are vital but, more than that, they have the key to a whole new world. They will discover that reading is a pleasure, a solace, an adventure and an education... They are the readers of the future and – who knows – perhaps the future judges or finalists of the Man Booker Prize!
The world of books is, alas, not familiar to everyone. Those who cannot read and write are denied the pleasures and the opportunities which these skills can bring. That's why I became involved with several literacy charities, including the National Literacy Trust whose proud Patron I have been since 2010. The Booker Prize Foundation continues to support its projects, such as the aptly named Books Unlocked, working with reading groups in prisons and young offenders' institutions throughout the country. And I have seen for myself how it has transformed the way learning to read is perceived at the first UK Literacy Hub in Middlesbrough, which the Booker Prize Foundation generously helps to fund. The Hub brings together the best literacy projects, concentrating on communities which need them most. And one of their most exciting ventures is Premier League Reading Stars, which encourages young football fans (especially the boys) to become reading fans through their passion for the game.
So Ladies and Gentlemen, this evening, let's celebrate the best in fiction with this world-famous Prize, but let's also never forget that without literacy we would have no literature.
Now, I think I have held up proceedings long enough – and, like everybody here tonight, I can't wait to hear more about the authors shortlisted for the 2015 Prize. Congratulations to you all and the very best of luck! Thank you very much.