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Why Mr Galliano's Circus is the best book in the world (others may disagree)

I enjoyed last night's Bookshop Barnie Balloon Debate far more than I thought I would.

I had previously turned down the opportunity to champion the 'Best Book in the World' on the grounds that I wasn't qualified for the task, having read relatively few books since I fled Aberdeen University in 1980 with a fortuitous 2:2 in English Lit.

Austin Williams, who organises this congenial annual event, is a persistent fellow so when he invited me to take part in this year's debate I felt it would be churlish to refuse. The question was, what book to nominate?

I gave the matter some thought and eventually settled on Mr Galliano's Circus by Enid Blyton. My competitors chose The Babylonian Talmud, Philip Roth's American Pastoral, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Ludwig von Mises' Human Action, Jane Austen's Emma, and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

And so to last night.

I arrived at the new Foyles bookshop in London's Charing Cross Road and made my way to the fifth floor where there is large cafe that leads to a glass-fronted auditorium on the sixth floor.

The first surprise was bumping into my old friend Eamonn Butler, director of the Adam Smith Institute, in the lift.

Eamonn told me he had been a participant a few years previously when he had proposed Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. The winner that year was The Times' columnist David Aaronovitch who advocated Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron. (No, I've never heard of it either.)

Thankfully Eamonn wasn't the only friendly face. There was Austin himself, Rob Lyons, Shirley Dent and several more I recognised but didn't have a chance to speak to.

I began to relax. (The wine helped too.)

Anyway, to cut a long story short, seven people were scheduled to speak but two didn't turn up. Those that did were given two and half minutes to 'sell' our books to the audience. (It was a pretty full house.)

That was followed by a short Q&A. Speakers were briefly interrogated by the audience and I had to answer a probing question about Enid Blyton's alleged racism. I responded by saying she was writing in a different age and there was nothing racist in Mr Galliano's Circus!

The audience then voted. They could vote for as many books/speakers as they wanted and the two with the fewest votes were then eliminated.

The three remaining speakers were then given a further minute to make their case.

The good news is I was one of the three. I survived the cut!

The bad news is that when the audience voted again I came third, albeit with a very respectable number of votes. (I had feared humiliation, so thank you!)

The other speakers tied, which has never happened before, apparently.

Eventually, following a tie-break, Jane Eyre, proposed by Pamela Bow, director of strategy at the Ministry of Justice, came second.

And the winner, by the narrowest of margins, was Rob Killick, CEO of ClerksWell, a digital consultancy, who advocated Philip Roth’s American Pastoral.

Anyway, thanks to Austin Williams for organising such an enjoyable event. At the end every speaker was presented with a book and an exclusive framed picture. (I can't tell you what mine is but I shall treasure it.)

Finally, if you're wondering why I proposed Mr Galliano's Circus here, roughly, is what I said:

Ladies and gentlemen, I present … Mr Galliano’s Circus, the best book in the world.

I have a theory that the best or most important book in the world is the one that first encourages or inspires us to read – and in my case that was Mr Galliano’s Circus by Enid Blyton. 

I was six years old and according to my mother I was struggling to read. I could identify flashcards but I was having difficulty reading a proper book. That all changed when I was given Mr Galliano's Circus.

Why did it appeal to me? First, I was introduced to an exciting new world. In brief: eight-year-old Jimmy Brown watches the circus roll through town; he makes friends with Lotta, a young circus girl who rides horses; that night the oddjob man runs off with the circus takings; Jimmy’s father, a carpenter, is invited to take his place; Jimmy proves to be good with animals so he and his mother are invited to join the circus too.

It’s a genuine page-turner, full of little incidents that drive the story forward as the circus travels from town to town.

There are some great characters, led by Mr Galliano with his moustache and top hat, and his “fat, good-tempered” wife. And of course there are lots of animals – dogs, horses, monkeys, a chimpanzee and an elephant.

Without wishing to sound like George Osborne, the book celebrates honest, hard-working people, and generosity of spirit. 

But Mr Galliano's Circus is also quite subversive. An ordinary family gives up their comfortable suburban life and joins the circus. Ultimately this is a book about freedom and escaping the rat race.

Most important it celebrates kindness to animals because – and this is a very important spoiler alert – ELEPHANTS NEVER FORGET.

Last but not least my favourite passage reads: 'The chimpanzee was dressed in red trousers, blue coat and straw hat, and it was smoking a cigarette! Jimmy stared in amazement. This was a wonderful sight!'

Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is entertainment. 

Enid Blyton's The Circus Collection featuring Mr Galliano's Circus, Hurrah For The Circus and Circus Days Again, is available in all good bookshops, £7.99.

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