When Ian Rankin was in the early days of what has proven to be a hugely successful career, he stalked the legendary Scottish crime writer William McIlvanney at the Edinburgh Book Festival.
Eventually, he plucked up courage and got him to sign one of his books, telling McIlvanney he wanted to write the Edinburgh equivalent of his books featuring his Glasgow cop, Laidlaw.
McIlvanney wrote in the book “good luck with the first Edinburgh Laidlaw”. Years later, when Rankin’s Rebus books had hit the top of the bestseller lists, Rankin interviewed his hero at another festival and told that story. McIlvanney wrote in Rankin’s latest novel: “The Edinburgh Laidlaw done good.”
That’s one of the little gems you can learn in the first episode of The Queen’s Reading Room podcast, which landed on January 8. Queen Consort Camilla has a track record with books – after all. She has presented the Booker Prize on eight occasions, including to Richard Flanagan when he won in 2014 for The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
Don’t let the title mislead you: the podcast has very little of the Queen. In fact, by my calculations, you’ll hear Camilla for only two minutes.
By the same token, it is her podcast because Camilla founded the literacy charity of the same name early in 2021 as the pandemic was doing its worst. Since then, she has been the driving force behind its mission “to help more people find and connect with books which enrich their lives”.
Until now, it’s been doing that on its website and Instagram and featuring many well-known writers, some indeed interviewed by Camilla – Edna O’Brien, for example – or writers about whom she enthuses.
The idea of the podcast is pretty simple: we hear from a particular author in conversation with Vicki Perrin, who runs the charity, about the role of books and writing in their lives, and we will sometimes hear more than a few words from the Queen herself. Authors set to appear include Joanna Lumley, Ann Patchett and David Baddiel.
In the first episode, Rankin – or Sir Ian Rankin as he bashfully reminds listeners; I suppose he had to, given the woman in charge – led us into his reading life, which began in Cardenden, a small coal-mining village across the Forth from Edinburgh.
He remembers being read Enid Blyton by his parents, but his girlfriend at university – “still my girlfriend, now my wife” – introduced him to other children’s classics such as Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh.
There was no bookshop in Cardenden, but he eventually made use of the library for film tie-in paperbacks and bought plenty of comics from the newsagents. As an uncle told his parents: “It doesn’t matter what Ian’s reading as long as he is reading.” So the Beano, Dandy and Superman comics were “the gateway to novels”, and eventually an English literature degree at university.
Rankin has always been an engaging, perceptive talker about books, so he was the perfect choice for the first instalment of this gentle podcast; there’s nothing to frighten the horses here. Rankin admitted to an obsession with stories, which helps given his success. At one stage he accounted for 10% of all crime fiction sold in Britain.
And he was candid enough to admit that: “[If] you’re an author, every book means something … gives you something. There will be something you’ll take away that burns in your subconscious that will become useful in your later career.”
Where was the Queen all this time? Well, she popped up with an outtake from an interview in 2021 with another crime writer, Peter James, whom she talked to on the set of the small-screen adaptation of his book Dead Simple.
What she wanted to know was pretty standard book-interview fare. How did he manage to write one book a year and how did he come up with ideas?
And then Perrin asked Camilla what books she had most enjoyed reading to her grandchildren? You can guess, can’t you? Harry Potter.
Mind you, she didn’t put on the voices: “I have never been able to master the art of mimicry … My husband can do them all.”
Were there any revelations in the podcast? Perhaps the closest was that Ian Rankin loves Jilly Cooper’s bonkbusters. Whenever he feels down, he turns to her novel Rivals, about the battle for control of a television company waged in studios and bedrooms. “It cheers me right up.”