It had to be Dickens, didn’t it? To me, Charles Dickens is the novelist to which all other novelists aspire. He’s the benchmark, the gold standard – and if I had allowed myself more than one book per author, my Top Ten would probably have been entirely Dickens. I didn’t always feel this way. As a young man, I found him dense and even turgid. I couldn’t handle his direct expression of emotion, and like many others dismissed him as ‘sentimental’. So for a long time I avoided him, and concentrated on more left-field and modern stuff. Then one day in my thirties I thought ‘You know, all these novels I’m reading just aren’t satisfying me, I want something I can get my teeth into.’ So I read Our Mutual Friend. I can still remember the effect of reading that opening chapter – without doubt the greatest in world literature – on the tube going to work at the BBC. I was thunderstruck. Over the next two or three years I read the entire Dickens canon, alternating with other books but always impatient to get back to the real stuff. Our Mutual Friend remains my favourite, partly because I never got over that initial impact, but also because it seems the most profound, the most effectively plotted, the most complete work of art he created. It’s complicated and heavy, of course, but endlessly entertaining, inspiring and moving. Around about the same time I was reading Dickens I was also discovering classical music after a lifetime of pop, and it was a similar experience. Mahler’s Second Symphony came as a shock from which I’ve never recovered. Ditto OMF. My favourite novel of all time.