Report by Annabel
When I booked my ticket for this event a couple of months ago, I was lucky enough to find an odd single seat in the middle of the stalls, a few rows from the front. I was ideally placed to watch the event and surrounded by publishing folk who had obviously block-bought.
To remind you of how the Golden Man Booker Prize was set up: Single judges (below) were appointed for each decade of the prize to pick one book each. The five winners were put to the public vote.
• 1970s – Robert McCrum chose In a Free State by V S Naipaul
• 1980s – Lemn Sissay picked Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
• 1990s – Kamila Shamsie chose The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
• 2000s – Simon Mayo picked Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
• 2010s – Hollie McNish chose Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
The event began with an introduction by Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of the Southbank, then it settled into a format where she talked to each decade’s judge, an actor then read from the book, followed by a response by the author (or their representative).
First was veteran journalist and author Robert McCrum who read the 1970s (plus the first winner in 1969). He had chosen VS Naipaul’s In a Free State from the decade. Naipaul was, he said, “The greatest living writer of prose fiction.” And he described the book as, “This is the one that seems it could have been written yesterday.” Meera Syal read, and then to our surprise, Vidia himself was brought onstage, wheelchair bound, to a rapturous round of applause. Lady Naipaul told us about his writing.
The 1980s were described by Lemn Sissay as “The decade of Thatcher”. He admitted he would never have read his choice Moon Tiger, but that it crept up on him. He’d been discussing it with Sally Bayley, (author of the new memoir Girl with Dove, which he urged us all to buy), and read some comments she had made about this wonderful book. Fiona Shaw did the reading, a monologue by the book’s protagonist about words and memory which was both funny and touching. Dame Penelope Lively told us, “It’s over thirty years since I wrote this book. It feels as if someone else wrote it,” talking of her younger self. She was around 50 when she wrote it and is 85 now (just months younger than Naipaul who is the oldest living Booker winner).
Kamila Shamsie judged the 1990s. She told us how her mother always used to order the Booker winner, so she had read all the books in her decade (except the Barry Unsworth) in the year they won. Chiwetel Ejiofor read from The English Patient. Michael Ondaatje then responded, telling us how the book took 4 or 5 years to write, and came from a conversation about a burns patient and their nurse. He described writing as a boon to him, and that he felt like an “archaeologist unearthing”. Earlier that afternoon, he’d taken part in a discussion with Kazuo Ishiguro, which a friend reports was marvellous.
The 2000s brought a disparate group of books, which Simon Mayo said, “Didn’t feel like a commentary on our time,” with the exception of Alan Hollinghurst’s In the Line of Beauty, “so most of the books felt timeless.” He admitted he’d only read two of his decade previously (but not which). He described Wolf Hall’s Thomas Cromwell as “the most extraordinary spin doctor of all time.” Geoffrey Streatfeild read a moving passage in which Cromwell’s daughter Grace dies. Hilary Mantel wasn’t available, so the director of her publishers, 4th Estate, spoke on her behalf.
The final decade was read by young poet Holly McNish. She admitted she hadn’t really ever read fiction and was unfamiliar with all her allotted authors. She’d felt that reading fiction was selfindulgent but had learned so much from her selection that she was now a reformed reader. Her choice was Lincoln in the Bardo which stood out because it was so different. The reading for this book was performed by Streatfeild, Shaw and Ejiofor – a section where three ghosts in a graveyard observe Lincoln visiting the tomb of his son. It was hilarious, and again touching. George Saunders couldn’t be there, but he had sent a typically quirky film from his hotel room. He described his book as being about grief and loss of course, but also that he hoped it had a sense of “viral goodness”. Something we all need.
It was time for the big announcement. Baroness Helena Kennedy, chair of the Booker Foundation, resplendent in a deep golden yellow dress, came on stage to say which book had won. The front of the stage was suddenly full of press photographers.
Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient won the public vote. Congratulations!
Ondaatje came on stage to make a short speech. He said he hadn’t re-read his book since it was published in 1992. He urged us all to read the “overlooked classics” which didn’t win the Booker Prize, namechecking Barbara Pym and William Trevor amongst others. His closing comment was to thank his late friend Anthony Minghella, whose film of the book, he said, probably helped it to win. I would say he’s being too humble.
During this evening I was particularly impressed by the actors’ readings – they all brought the books to life in an inspiring way – in particular, I’d been unsure whether to attempt to read Lincoln in the Bardo but am now itching to get into it over the summer.
Jude Kelly closed the proceedings and we poured out from the RFH’s air-conditioned comfort into the 30 degrees heat of the summer night, having had a splendidly “Bookerish” evening.
Bring on this year’s 50th Man Booker Prize longlist!
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Don’t forget to visit our reviews of (nearly) all the winners of the Booker Prize which we featured last week in the run-up to the Golden Man Booker Prize award.