Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me begin by saying how conscious I am of the honour of succeeding Her Majesty The Queen as Patron of the Royal Society of Literature – founded, as you know, two hundred years ago ‘to reward literary merit and excite literary talent’.
As you also know, your first royal patron, back in 1820, was King George IV – remembered, happily, as a keen patron of the arts and an enthusiastic reader. He adored Sir Walter Scott’s poems and the Waverley novels; he read and admired one of my favourite authors, Jane Austen, and was ahead of the fashion in doing so. George IV is remembered as an admirer of other people’s words, but not, alas, much remembered for any of his own.
In fact, only two of his sayings still feature in any dictionary of quotations. One is: "The highest of distinctions is service to others" – a noble sentiment and one, we know, that The Queen has lived by throughout her long life. The other quotation is rather less worthy, positively ungallant in fact. When George IV caught his first glimpse of his proposed bride-to-be, Caroline of Brunswick, he gasped to a friend, ‘I am not well: pray get me a glass of brandy.’
Well, to be honest, I could do with a glass of brandy right now, daunted as I am by the challenge of saying even a few words to a room full of people who have spent their lives doing magical things with words and language.
I am no wordsmith, either as writer or a speaker, but I am a reader – and a passionate and a grateful one. And I take on this new role as your patron with great pleasure – conscious of the Society’s illustrious past, aware of the range of awards and prizes you give out each year to honour and support writers, and excited by all that I have heard about your plans for the future.
Now today is National Writing Day, organised by First Story, another charity I am proud to support. First Story brings talented, professional writers into secondary schools serving low-income communities – to work with teachers and students to foster creativity and communication skills. Encouraging young people to write, to read, to enjoy words and language is so important – which is why I particularly want to salute the work the RSL does with its outreach programmes in schools.
Now one of your most distinguished former fellows was T S Eliot who said, famously, “Last year's words belong to last year's language and next year's words await another voice.”
Well, at the RSL you are clearly impatient. You are not hanging around awaiting another voice. You have invited forty exciting new voices with your “40 new fellows under 40” programme. This is a new initiative designed to bring fresh, young blood into the RSL family – and I have to say, in my experience, every family benefits from an injection of new blood now and again.
I know your forty new fellows have signed the Roll Book, adding their names to a list of some of the greatest writers of the past two centuries. I believe they will have done so using a pen with a history. I understand Charles Dickens’ quill was retired in 2013 and the choice is now between a writing implement once given to Lord Byron and T S Eliot’s own fountain pen. If I may, I am going to use T S Eliot’s pen – not only because I love The Wasteland (and many of his other poems), but also because it was T S Eliot who said: “Home is where one starts from.”
And it was at home, as a child, that I first found my love of books. My parents encouraged me to read and I shall always be incredibly thankful to them for that. In good times and, particularly, in less good times, books have been my friends. In my experience, there is no better, more constant or stimulating a companion than a good book. I cannot tell you how grateful I am to you all for writing them! Thank you very much.
Ladies and Gentlemen,