Top guns: Britain’s favourite crime writers

American thriller writer James Patterson is very popular with library users in Britain. Not only is he the author of Sail, the most borrowed book last year, but of 17 others on the list of 250 most borrowed books. Most of them, however, were collaborations with other authors.

That leaves the field clear for another American, Patricia Cornwell, to claim the honour of being the favourite crime writer of library users in Britain. She authored five books on the list: The Front, No 7; Book Of The Dead, 22; Scarpetta, 78; At Risk, 81; and Predator, 205.

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TS Eliot Britain’s favourite poet


TS Eliot is Britain’s favourite poet, according to a BBC online poll. More good news: John Donne came in second and Yeats and Dylan Thomas also ended up in the top 10. I am surprised Auden didn’t make the list. How couldn’t he?

More than 18,000 votes were cast and the top 10 favourite poets are:

  1. TS Eliot
  2. John Donne
  3. Benjamin Zephaniah
  4. Wilfred Owen
  5. Philip Larkin
  6. William Blake
  7. WB Yeats
  8. John Betjeman
  9. John Keats
  10. Dylan Thomas

Other contenders included Simon Armitage, WH Auden, Robert Browning, Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wendy Cope, Carol Ann Duffy, Thomas Hardy, Seamus Heaney, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ted Hughes, Rudyard Kipling, Roger McGough, John Milton, Sylvia Plath, Christina Rossetti, Stevie Smith, Lord Tennyson, and William Wordsworth.I have never read Zephaniah.

Here one can hear TS Eliot reading from The Waste Land and Four Quartets. The Poetry Archive site also has readings by Dylan Thomas, Yeats, Larkin and Betjeman.

It’s revealing that Keats was the only Romantic to make the list and none of the Victorians did. The fact that Blake is also on the list suggests people today still like the kind of poetry that was popular in the 1960s and ’70s.

Personally, I would have included Auden, Wordsworth and Kipling in place of Zephaniah, Owen and Blake.

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BBC poetry site polling for Britain’s favourite poet

Carol Ann Duffy is the poet laureate, but who is Britain’s favourite poet? The BBC poetry site is running an online poll which closes on September 1.

Voters can choose from a shortlist of 30 poets selected by a panel of judges. One can vote for

TS Eliot, WB Yeats, Dylan Thomas, WH Auden, John Donne,  Milton, Blake, Burns, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Christina Rossetti, Kipling, Hardy, Hopkins, Wilfred Owen, Betjeman, Larkin,Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Stevie Smith

as well as contemporary poets such as

Carol Ann Duffy, Seamus Heaney, Roger McGough, Simon Armitage, Wendy Cope and Benjamin Zephaniah.

It’s interesting Shelley didn’t make the shortlist, nor did Matthew Arnold, while Christina Rossetti did.

The winner will be announced on October 8, Britain’s National Poetry Day.

Best of all, one can read more than 100 poems on the website, representing all the contenders.

I loved three poems I had never read before:  You’re Beautiful, by Simon Armitage; Valentine, by Carol Ann Duffy; and Bloody Men, by Wendy Cope (left).

Bloody Men is bloody funny, so I will take the liberty of posting it here:

Bloody men are like bloody buses –
You wait for about a year
And as soon as one approaches your stop
Two or three others appear.

You look at them flashing their indicators,
Offering you a ride.
You’re trying to read the destinations,
You haven’t much time to decide.

If you make a mistake, there is no turning back.
Jump off, and you’ll stand there and gaze
While the cars and the taxis and lorries go by
And the minutes, the hours, the days.


Poets have this wonderful gift of making the ordinary memorable with a phrase or an image. Consider this short poem by John Betjeman:

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Mysteries and serious novels not so hot in UK

Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear are missing from the list of Britain’s 50 favourite writers — and my favourite, PG Wodehouse, ranks a lowly 38th on the list prepared by Costa Book Awards .

Among my other favourites missing from the list are Graham Greene, Rudyard Kipling, John Le Carre and Len Deighton. George Orwell is there, at No 30, but I like his essays more than his stories. Happily Oscar Wilde is also on the list — but not Bernard Shaw. I certainly enjoy The Importance of Being Earnest more than anything by Shaw.

But the biggest surprise must be the absence of Ian Fleming from the list of Britain’s favourite authors. Dan Brown, on the contrary, ranks 19th.

Surprisingly, HG Wells makes the list but not Somerset Maugham. Another big surprise is Chaucer’s presence on the list. Even though he takes the bottom spot, still it’s a miracle he is there for his ye olde English isn’t reader-friendly at all. But then Canterbury Tales has been dramatised and telecast, and that might have made him popular. On the other hand, Evelyn Waugh isn’t on the list — even though Brideshead Revisited was a highly successful television series and is now doing the rounds as a movie.   

No less astonishing is the poor showing of mystery and crime novelists. Along with Le Carre and Deighton, there are other notable absentees from the list such as GK Chesterton, PD James, Ruth Rendell and Colin Dexter. Ian Rankin takes the 44th spot, one place above Tolstoy! It looks like the Brits are not as keen on mysteries as they are cracked up to be.

Not so surprising perhaps is the poor showing of serious modern novelists. Apart from Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Margaret Atwood, Beryl Bainbridge and JG Ballard, who else is there? None that I have read. Iain Banks and Ray Bradbury, I would place in a different category for their science fiction. Booker Prize winners are not that popular, it seems, though the prize-winning books end up on the bestseller lists. But it’s one thing to buy a book, another thing to read it. I never finished The God of Small Things.

Britain and Pakistan

The Shadow Of The Great Game: The Untold Story Of India’s Partition by Narendra Singh Sarila

Tony Blair had to go because his Iraq policy proved deeply unpopular. We have read how Britons disapprove of their military presence in Iraq. But he was only pursuing traditional British policy. The Middle East matters so much to Britain that it even helped to create Muslim states — and not just in the Middle East. We are talking of Pakistan.

Everybody knows India was partitioned because the Muslims wanted a separate state. What’s less known is that a separate Muslim state also seemed to be in the interest of the British, who lent a hand in its creation. Take Kashmir, for instance. Its Hindu maharaja opted for India; Pakistan tried to seize the country by sending raiders across the border; Indian troops fought back; and Kashmir got divided into an Indian and a Pakistani zone. Few people know, however, that it was British military officers who put Gilgit, Chitral and other remote areas in the north under Pakistani control. They were serving with the Gilgit Scouts, part of the Pakistani forces. I read that in The Shadow Of The Great Game: The Untold Story Of India’s Partition.

British officers at the time were still serving on the Indian subcontinent, mostly in Pakistan, and their presence restored an uneasy peace in Kashmir in 1948, it’s said. That’s not the full story, according to the author, Narendra Singh Sarila. The British commander of the Indian army prevented his soldiers from going ahead with the plans drawn up by his Indian subordinates. And he was supported by the British Labour government of the time, headed by Clement Attlee. The Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, could do nothing.

This might seem strange. But Narila should know. He was aide de camp to Mountbatten, the last Briton to govern India.

Now why did Britain help Pakistan? Look at the map. Karachi is the subcontinent’s nearest port to the Gulf. Peshawar is close to Afghanistan. Kashmir extends all the way up to to Sinkiang in China. Hence the strategic importance of Pakistan. Britain needed Gulf oil and wanted to keep out the Soviets, who lay just across the border from Afghanistan.

Britain wanted to retain a military presence in this corner of the subcontinent even if it had to pull out from the rest of India. And Jinnah, the Muslim League leader, was ready to make such a deal in exchange for Pakistan. He collaborated with the British during World War II when Gandhi and Nehru instead of cooperating with the British started the Quit India movement because Britain refused to promise them independence.

The Indian nationalists made a mistake by starting the Quit India movement, says Sarila; Jinnah got what he wanted by cooperating with the British. But he didn’t have a choice. Not even all Muslims wanted Pakistan. The North West Frontier Province — now a part of Pakistan — supported the nationalists. There were divisions even in Jinnah’s own Muslim League. But successive British rulers in India — Linlithgow and Wavell — supported him as a counterfoil to the nationalists who wanted to get rid of them.

Why Jinnah wanted Pakistan has been extensively written about. So I won’t go into that here even though that’s part of the story.

But reading this book, it becomes clear that the British saw the founding father of Pakistan as a willing tool for their colonial interests.

Winston Churchill hated Gandhi and called him a naked fakir. Jinnah, on the contrary, was a brown sahib. He wore three-piece suits, gave speeches in English, smoked and drank and did not follow Muslim religious practices.

Above all, he was not a Hindu. Sarila writes that “an overwhelming majority of Englishmen in India by this time considered the Congress party and the Hindus generally their enemy and the Muslims their friend”. Then he quotes from Wavell’s diary: “The immense gulf between the Hindu religion and mentality and ours and the Moslem is the real core of our troubles in India.”

Poor Wavell, I wonder if he would have felt a similar kinship to the Taleban.

It’s just as well Jinnah got his Pakistan. India has enough problems of its own.

A rare English novel

I just finished reading Ian Rankin’s Fleshmarket Alley. What struck me was not so much the storytelling or the characterisation — Rankin has done better in earlier John Rebus novels which go deeper into characters and atmosphere. But this is a book one should read not only as a crime novel. What sets it apart is something else that is rare in British fiction. It describes the plight of the illegal immigrants and the wretched conditions in which asylum seekers are kept in Britain.

Rankin writes with his heart on his sleeve and shows the racism which exists in the housing estates, among police ranks and sections of the media. Of course, there are the good guys too. But reading this book made me pause and think: How often do we come across an English novel about the immigrants and the aliens? Rarely.

It’s true that curry restaurants are popular in Britain, there are Asians in every walk of life, and the majority of Britons don’t support the Iraq war.

But while the people behaved in exemplary fashion after the London blasts in July last year, how did they react when the police shot dead a man mistaken for a terrorist  just after the blasts? Angry protests did not flood the airwaves and the newspaper columns. He was a foreigner, a Brazilian.

Americans have had more to say and write about Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prison than Britons about their own forces in southern Iraq. Maybe, there is no comparison between the two. But maybe the anti-war feeling is based on not just a desire for peace but fear of terrorist reprisals. NIMBY — not in my backyard, please!