Back in the early 1980s, in the depths of an Oxford winter, I remember trudging through the snow to attend something called the New College Fiction Symposium – a kind of brains trust featuring assorted luminaries of the form (notably Salman Rushdie and Michael Frayn) and chaired by Melvyn Bragg. These, younger readers may perhaps need reminding, were exciting times for the English novel. Midnight’s Children had just scooped the Booker. There was a feeling in the air that a certain kind of book (the Drabble and Amis K kind) was on the way out, and was being replaced by the Rushdie, Barnes and Amis M kind, and at the same time a suspicion that this transfer of power might be rather a good thing.
Something of this tension was reflected in the panel discussion. When the meeting was thrown open to the floor, I can recall standing up and asking what now seems a slightly mean-spirited question. It was directed at Melvyn Bragg and its gist was: ‘Don’t you think that the old-fashioned, staidly