October 16, 2013

Behind the Booker scenes: the gaffes and the punch-ups


I don’t care who won, just tell me who punched who

“There are many things I regret doing and being a judge for the Booker prize is one of them”. This is Paul Bailey, speaking about being a judge in 1982, while Jonathan Coe reflected “How very arbitrary it seems, in retrospect” about being on the judging panel in 1995.

As the Booker chatter continues all day, it’s the judges’ gossip I’m interested in. Luckily the Guardian put together a timeline featuring judges from across the prize’s history, and their mostly uncensored comments.

In his 1969 judging the very first Booker prize, Frank Kermode remembered spending ‘more than one weekend at Michael Astor’s beautiful Cotswold house’; that year the judges read about 60 novels, a measly number compared to the hundred or so the judges are expected to read currently. 1995 judge Ruth Rendell recalled that she ‘used to lie and say I read every word of every book’; Tibor Fischer was more ruthless: ‘one novel ended up in the bin after two pages’.

A common theme running through many of the recollections is the fact that the judges are all friends and have a lovely time, until they have to make the final decision. Locked in a room with only orange juice, sandwiches and Martyn Goff, who ran the prize for 34 years (Victoria Glennding remembers him in the 1992 meeting in a ‘gold satin tie’) all hell can break loose. 1977 judge Beryl Bainbridge was painfully honest about this:

All I can remember of the final meeting is that I got terribly tired, I literally sank lower and lower under the table. Brendan Gill…went towards the balcony saying he was going to throw himself off, he was so fed up. Philip Larkin was completely silent most of the time. Nobody dared say a word to him and he never said a word back.

Some judges regretted their final decisions, notably George Steiner in 1972, who gave the prize to John Berger’s G; Berger promptly donated half of the prize money to the Black Panthers, and Steiner thought ‘that was the end for me in this country.’ Others regret gaffes and controversy. 1986 judge Anthony Thwaite denied having blamed “all those women” in his regrettable apology letter to Julian Barnes who hadn’t made the shortlist while in 2011 Susan Hill wished fellow-judge Chris Mullin had used any word but “zipalong” to describe what he wanted out of the shortlisted books. But 2005 judge John Sutherland described best the inevitability of controversy when he noted, “Teeth were gnashed in the press the next day; but they would be if Jesus Christ had written the winning novel.”

If there was a prize for best ending to a Booker announcement, it would be a joint winner between the recollections of Fay Weldon and Marina Warner, one for the sheer drama, the other for the happiest ending. In 1985, Warner and the other judges gave the prize to The Bone People by Keri Hulme, which had been published by a women’s cooperative in New Zealand, who, “when the book won against very high odds, came up in full island dress to collect it, chanting a Maori praise song.”

Fay Weldon’s experience in 1983 was very different:

“…I had to deliver the chairperson’s speech. After I sat down, the then president of the Publishers Association hit my agent Giles Gordon, second best thing to hitting me. I’d used the speech to reproach the publishers for giving such rotten deals to writers…[the BBC TV screens] went blank before I had time to finish with the usual pacifying bit. Instead, I just had to sit down and all hell broke loose…It’s all got rather dull since. No one hits anyone.”

Did Robert MacFarlane hit Colm Tóibín when the cameras cut off? I’m starting the rumours now.



Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.