Nadine Dorries should write what she likes. And I’ll read what I like

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Mark Thomas/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Mark Thomas/REX/Shutterstock

In the latest tedious round of the culture war, I did not expect to be taking a position on the books of the new culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, whose defenders point to her being a prolific novelist as evidence of a sincere interest in the arts. Instantly, we are pitched into a world of literature “that people actually want to read”, defined against all those who think novels should be about feelings and Kierkegaard and preferably only understood by a coterie of four critics. Does anyone who likes books really think like this?

Dorries’s novels, which often feature nurses, Liverpool and Ireland, all of which reflect their author’s biography, tend to come in groups – the Lovely Lane series, the Tarabeg trilogy, the Four Streets series – and are produced at impressive speed. If people enjoy reading them, who am I to complain that they’re not exactly Thomas Mann? The answer is that snobbery in books, while often perceived to be top-down – de haut en bas, if you want to be posh about it – frequently seems to go in the other direction: though I’m perfectly happy for people to fill their boots with Dorries’s nurses, me losing myself in something long and weird and unpronounceable really gets on the anti-lit brigade’s nerves.

The idea, I suppose, is that one can’t possibly be enjoying oneself and is just doing it for show or to make everybody else feel bad. Ah, well. I note that Dorries is about to embark on a new series, the Belfont Legacy, whose first tranche is entitled A Wicked Woman but for which we will have to wait until next summer.

Irish roots showing

Heir Island
Heir Island: ‘fiendishly wiggly coast’. Photograph: Terry Whittaker / Alamy/Alamy

Dorries has said that she credits her Irish grandmother for some of her inspiration, having been whisked away to the west of Ireland on childhood holidays, there to be enveloped in “the scent of raw peat and Holy Smoke”. Coincidentally, I’m currently watching repeats of the television drama The Irish R.M., shown daily here in Ireland on TG4, the Irish language channel that I watch in the pretence that I’m getting really serious about learning Gaeilge. Luckily, the 1980s adaptation of Somerville and Ross’s novels, which featured Peter Bowles as a retired Victorian army officer turned resident magistrate and Bryan Murray as the local rogue hellbent on outwitting him, is being shown in English. The programme is an unrepentant celebration of appalling stereotypes – drunkenness, fecklessness, dishonesty and a lot of horses – and thoroughly enjoyable, largely because the Irish always get the upper hand.

A recent episode saw a pompous Englishman set sail for Heir Island, in West Cork’s Roaring Water Bay, to collect examples of folk tales; he ends up ensnared in an illegal drinking den while islanders spout cod-antique nonsense at him. I squeaked with excitement because that bit of fiendishly wiggly coast is where our family always heads on holiday, the latest excitement being that the tiny island now has its own pizza place, PizzHeiria.

Meanwhile, back in the 21st century, Irish-UK relations continue to be complex, the latest manifestation being that post-Brexit regulations mean packages from England are taking forever to get here and frequently come with mystifying additional charges. Progress.

Hooked on thrillers

James Stewart in Rear Window
Strange goings-on in the neighbourhood. James Stewart in Rear Window. Photograph: Allstar Collection/Cinetext/PARA/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

I should add that it’s not all Proust and Woolf in my reading nook. During lockdown, I developed a serious addiction to psychological thrillers and am now up to about three a week. Among their most popular themes – your husband isn’t who you think he is, your daughter’s got a secret drug habit, the next-door neighbour’s a serial killer – perhaps the most abiding is house anxiety. Protagonists are forever moving into homes they can’t really afford, or where a dreadful crime has been committed unbeknown to them, or where there’s a clandestine surveillance system, and sometimes all three. Often, there is a neighbourhood queen bee whose shiny kitchen cabinets mark her out as a villain. By their fiction shall you know their most deeply rooted fears.

• Alex Clark is an Observer columnist

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