Rosie Millard May Run a Posh Book Club in the Groucho, but I Bet Mine among the Ladies of Nightingale House (Average Age 87) Is More Fun

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According to a report published by Libri last month, the public library service spends [pounds sterling]1 bn of taxpayers' money a year, but only 9 per cent of this sum goes on books. OK, some of it is spent usefully on tapes and CDs and devoted librarians who know their stuff. But the founders of the Victorian Free Library Movement must be revolving in their graves.

If it weren't for public lending rights, many lesser-known authors would be penniless. But what about the readers, many of whom rely heavily on the local library? What about my ladies at Nightingale House, if we didn't have Wandsworth's superb service?

Rosie Millard may run a posh book club in the Groucho, but I bet mine is more fun. Six years ago, the residents of Nightingale House invited me to talk about my books. It's the largest private home in Europe, with around 300 beds. Afterwards they carried me off to a slap-up tea with pastries oozing fruit and honey. "Do you really like books?" I inquired. Frances, who fled the Nazis, answered: "I saw them burning in Berlin. Of course we love books." I explained the concept of a book club. "What a good idea," they chorused, "you will run it for us." And I have done ever since.


Original members such as Betty, Rachel and Leah are now in their nineties, and the average age is around 87, so large-print books and audiotapes are vital. We take into account illness or periods in hospital when members can't keep up, so one gentle arrangement is not to reveal the ending in our discussions. And they decided (not me) that it would be ladies only, because "it's far easier for our generation to talk about sex when there aren't gentlemen present".

We established quickly that it was no good discussing the classics: Frances and Anne-Marie knew them by heart, others only vaguely. I wanted to ensure that every member, formally educated or not, was on an equal footing, so that no one felt left out. Modern British writing was new to most of them, so that's what we would tackle. If they liked one novel by Ian McEwan or Graham Swift, they could read the rest for themselves. And we might persuade living authors to visit us, especially as few residents could get to hear them otherwise.

Dozens of authors have taken the trouble to come, and I am passionately grateful to them. Joanne Harris, Frances Fyfield, Edna O'Brien, Ruth Rendell and Clare Francis have explained over clattering teacups how they write. …