In the 50 years since the Booker Prize was established as the country’s premier literary award, it has stoked more feuds and put more noses out of joint than Donald Trump on a good day
Daily Express Saturday October 13 2018
tHE Booker Prize might be all about literary fiction – but it has a direct link to that most populist of authors, Ian Fleming. After dreaming up the idea of a book prize, publisher Tom Maschler needed a sponsor. Commodities company Booker McConnell had developed a sideline buying up authors’ copyrights, starting with the James Bond author. It was a neat fit and the Booker Prize was born.
The first Booker Prize was awarded in 1969 to PH Newby for Something To Answer For, set in the 1956 Suez Crisis. “My mother finally stopped asking why I wrote when I had a perfectly good job as head of the BBC’s Third Programme,” he said.
Newby won £5,000 and after the cheque had cleared it was returned to him as a memento. His wife put it in the downstairs loo. He used the money to pay off some of the mortgage.
The Booker faltered initially with publishers reluctant to pay fees to enter their books and emergency meetings were called.
In 1971 Malcolm Muggeridge, the writer often known as St Mugg, resigned as chair of the Booker judges midway through the process. The Catholic convert complained that contemporary literature was pornographic and without artistic merit. The publicity boost was just what the Booker needed.
There was more controversy in 1972 when winner John Berger attacked Booker McConnell for its past colonial links with the Caribbean. He said he would give half his prize money to the Black Panthers. Booker decided all publicity was good publicity and remained as sponsor.
There have been 243 judges to date and some unusual behaviour. In 1977 Beryl Bainbridge lay supine on the carpet at judges’ meetings, speaking upwards from the floor. In the same year, Philip Larkin threatened to throw himself out of the window if Paul Scott’s Staying On didn’t win. It did.
In 1976 a toss of the coin saw David Storey win for Saville after the judges were unable to arrive at a decision.
Julian Barnes, who won in 2011, described the Booker as “posh bingo”. Writer AL Kennedy, who has won other awards but not the Booker, once said it was decided by “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s married to who and whose turn it is”.
Kingsley Amis was shortlisted for Ending Up in 1974. One judge strongly favoured him – Elizabeth Jane Howard, then his wife. “It’s easily the best thing he’s written but I mustn’t say anything,” she said, leaving the room. They split the prize between two authors that year – neither of them Amis.
Amis did win – to his astonishment – in 1986 for The Old Devils. His critical comments about the Booker ceased. He said he was going to spend the prize – by then £15,000 – on “booze and curtains”.
Feuding shortlisted authors Anthony Burgess, of Clockwork Orange fame, and William Golding, best known for Lord Of The Flies, drove the Booker on to the front pages in 1980. Burgess, cross that he hadn’t been told in advance if he had won, brooded in his room at the Savoy while Golding claimed the prize. Burgess hissed: “It’s a small parochial prize suitable for small, parochial novels.”
Fronting the BBC’s coverage in 1983, Selina Scott embarrassingly failed to recognise judge Angela Carter and asked what she thought of the winner. Scott then asked chair of judges Fay Weldon if she had read all the books up for consideration.
“Over-my-dead-body” moment number one. As uttered by Dame Julia Neuberger, a judge in 1994, about James Kelman’s winning novel How Late It Was, How Late. It was famed for the swearing littering its pages and a slow start to the normal uplift in sales enjoyed by the winner. One branch of WH Smith reported selling just seven copies in the subsequent week.
In 2002 Booker withdrew sponsorship and Man Group took over, raising the prize to £50,000 with the shortlisted authors also receiving £2,500.
AS Byatt (1990) spent her winning cheque on a swimming pool for her
AMIS’S CHOICE: Booze and curtains