Is it a sign of age, because it seems like only yesterday that I was at the Guildhall for the 2016 Man Booker Prize – but here we are again to celebrate yet another great feast of literature.
It is always a little daunting to address such eminent literary company – but I am heartened by the thought that we probably do all have one thing in common: we are here tonight because of books and the pleasure they give us – and what a pleasure that is! Books stretch our imagination and transport us to new worlds. They give us a room with a view, and an introduction to a cast of extraordinary characters. They make us laugh, they make us cry and they make us think.
Being able to read is second nature to us: it's impossible to imagine being unable to. But, Ladies and Gentlemen, for many people learning to read can be an insurmountable struggle. Around 15 per cent, or 5.1 million people in England, can be described as "functionally illiterate". That struggle needs to be overcome, both for the sake of those individuals and for the good of the society in which we live.
In this country, we are lucky to have many charities which contribute so much to reading and writing. I'm proud to be Patron of four of them (Beanstalk, Booktrust, First Story and the National Literacy Trust) who work tirelessly to find new and exciting ways to approach literacy. They involve parents, grand-parents and teachers in imaginative schemes which help to show children the pleasures of learning to read and write. Indeed, this year, The National Literacy Trust published research which makes a positive link between the enjoyment of reading and attainment in school.
There are also some wonderful events that have a huge appeal to young writers such as the first ever National Writing Day, promoted by 'First Story'; the annual 'Wicked Young Writers Award', and of course, BBC Radio 2's seventh '500 Words' competition, that this year attracted a staggering 130,000 entries from children up to the age of 13. I was lucky enough to join some of the best known children's authors to help judge it, and I think we were all astounded by the high standard of writing. It was virtually impossible to pick six winners from the range of stupendous stories.
Now, you may feel that all this talk of inspiring children to read and write is a far cry from the accomplished works that have made it to the Man Booker Shortlist. But, as I've said before, and I shall probably say it again, without literacy there is no literature and without young writers we will be devoid of the great authors of tomorrow….
And on the subject of the shortlist, let me turn to the heroic efforts of the panel of judges. They have spent months reading a vast number of books to decide on the short list and the ultimate winner. As always, I am full of admiration for them. Under the leadership of their Chairman, Baroness Young, it seems to me that they bring to the task a wide experience of cultural viewpoints, together with an open-ness to innovation and sensitivity to the power of language. I am sure you will join me in thanking them.
And now, before we hear their verdict, I would also like to say a huge thank you to all the finalists here tonight for enhancing our lives with their wonderful stories… and finally, to quote Philip Pullman: “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”