I was privileged enough to go the (Man) Booker prize dinner for 11 years in a row. Here are my favourite memories.
1997 – The God of Small Things
My first year; I was overwhelmed by the scale of the event and blown away by the grandeur of the Guildhall with its gigantic statues of Gog and Magog standing sentinel. Arundhati Roy glowed with stardom and gave a heartfelt, gracious speech. Less thrillingly, Madeleine St John’s shortlisted title The Essence of the Thing was my first Booker ‘huh??’
1999 – Disgrace
The year I learnt an important lesson: if you’re going to the dinner, try to read at least some of the books. It’s embarrassing to wing it when you’re a literary editor. I was placed on a table of charming Booker employees who had read all the shortlisted titles and wanted some top-flight critical discussion from me. I still haven’t read J M Coetzee’s masterpiece but to this day I remember the passionate debate: Is it misogynist? Yes… no… Yes… NO…
2000 – The Blind Assassin
So this year I invented a new Booker tradition: read five shortlisted books, run out of time and then find that it’s the one you haven’t read that wins. Tchah! The shortlist was chiefly memorable for The Deposition of Father McGreevy, otherwise known as ‘the sheep-shagging novel’. I’m afraid so.
2001 – The True History of the Kelly Gang
The first year the longlist was published. I was, and remain dubious about this, but apparently it’s ‘good for sales’. Cracking shortlist this year, including McEwan, Andrew Miller (Oxygen), David Mitchell’s stunning Number9Dream and Ali Smith’s Hotel World. But I hadn’t read the Carey. The long tables a la Hogwarts were uncomfortably crammed: Booker was outgrowing the Guildhall. As we all sat down I asked Ali how she felt. ‘I’m just so pleased to be here AT ALL,’ she beamed. The best moment for me this year actually came after the dinner, when I sloped off with my friend, Michele Roberts, one of the judges, and sat on her rooftop overlooking the Thames drinking red wine. I also discovered that knowing one judge does not necessarily mean you know in advance what the winner is going to be. I got the impression Michele thought the voting was going to go a different way…
2002 – Life of Pi
My memorable moment came long before Booker night. I was loafing around the Groucho club late
one night when a familiar tousled-haired figure hoved into view. Barely listening to the usual impassioned spiel, I let Jamie Byng of Canongate shove an advanced readers’ proof into my hands. Months later it was still lying around unread, some book with a tiger in a boat on the cover. Eventually I read it and… wow!
This was the year the dinner moved to the British Museum, presumably for space reasons. While having the champagne reception among the Egyptian sculptures was fabulous, once dinner started it was hard to hear anything with the appalling acoustics (the tables were laid out in the central court, around the old reading room). ‘And… (crackle) the (mumble crackle) is… (inaudible).’ When Martel switched to French in his acceptance speech, it wasn’t much more incomprehensible than his English over all the static. But how we cheered plucky little Canongate.
2003 – Vernon God Little
Back at the BM, announcements still inaudible. This year the organisers decided, unwisely, to focus on the judging process rather than the books, screening a short film showing A C Grayling reading on holiday, Francine Stock unpacking boxes of books, D J Taylor looking thoughtful… yes, yes, judging is NOT INTERESTING, please move on. I also remember a quote from the mountaineer judge Rebecca Stephens along the lines of ‘I’m looking for a novel that makes me feel emotion’. It’s not a great criterion, is it? I mean, Hitler made people feel emotion. As the announcements began, all the hacks left their tables and thundered to the front, cupping their palms round their ears. That crazy scamp DBC Pierre won.
2004 – The Line of Beauty
The concourse at Victoria Station presumably not being available, the ceremony moved, for one year only, to the vast and atmosphere-free Royal Horticultural Halls. Toibin, Mitchell and Hollinghurst were the favourites, my fellow Indy on Sunday writer (and judge) Rowan Pelling wore an eye-popping low-cut frock, and glamorous Sarah Hall (shortlisted for The Electric Michelangelo) created a stir with her tattoo-baring outfit. I was gutted about Mitchell (still am), but LOB was a worthy winner. It’s a great year when there are three masterpieces on the shortlist.
2005 – The Sea
Possibly my finest Man Booker hour, and the only time I have been placed next to a winner. Not that anyone on the Picador table thought John Banville was in with much of a chance, what with Zadie Smith, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ali Smith and Sebastian Barry to contend with. This was probably the best shortlist in all my Booker years (unimpeachably high-brow literary judges, that’s why). The mood on the table was gloomy, relieved by the occasional comment such as: ‘It’s a great achievement to get this far, John. Just think of it like that.’
I wasn’t even at his side when the announcement was made: I was up on the balcony doing a piece to camera for Kirsty Wark. We all leaned dramatically over to hear the result, only to see the table I had just been sitting at erupt with joy. Damn! Banville was swept into superstardom – you couldn’t get near him at his Groucho club aftershow party – and I didn’t see him again for a whole year, when his publishers had a reunion lunch. He was kind enough to say that everyone who’d been on the table that night was part of the magic. John, you are a gent and my favourite ever Man Booker winner!
2006 – I can’t even bring myself to say
The announcement was made and moments later Edward St Aubyn and his entire contingent (including the actress Maria Aitken) rose and icily swept out of the room. Spotting Alan Hollinghurst, I did a Munch’s The Scream face and he said, ‘I know. SHIT HAPPENS.’ My deputy texted me the single word ‘Noooooo!’
Usually the losers’ parties are tumbleweed affairs, but that night it seemed like everyone stopped by to commiserate with Teddy. Eventually the room became so starry it was like a winner’s party after all. There was even an odd moment when one of the judges turned up to apologise to the stony-faced St Aubyn. A surreal evening.
2010 – The Finkler Question
Bit of a jump, but I have no strong memories of the years White Tiger or The Gathering won, beyond meeting the extraordinary Indra Sinha, author of Animal’s People and talking to Adiga’s publisher beforehand, who confessed, ‘We’re trying to calm him down. He really thinks he’s going to win.’ And I unfortunately missed the Wolf Hall dinner.
The winner announcements are always dramatic, and you can instantly tell from the atmosphere when they’ve got it ‘right’. You could really feel the love for Howard Jacobson. (As opposed to the 2006 announcement when it felt like all the energy had suddenly drained out of the room.) I even managed to grab hold of Howard’s trophy and pose for a photo. I wonder what this year’s Man Booker moment will be?