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Judging the Booker – when a Scot won for the first (and so far only) time – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

Judging the Booker – when a Scot won for the first (and so far only) time

March 9, 2018 | by SRB
In this, the 50th anniversary year of the Booker Prize, Alan Taylor reveals the details of How Late It Was, How Late’s incredible comeback in the judging rounds. This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday in 1994.

Prize Fight

EVERY circus needs its big top, and the grandiloquent Guildhall, in the heart of the City of London, belongs to the Booker Prize.

Each October, for as long as those born in the television era can remember, “literary luvvies” (catchphrase courtesy of the TLS of the tabloids, the Daily Record) gather there to partake of the largesse of Booker, a plc with more interest in poultry than Proust.

It is, as Malcolm Bradbury has observed, “a monkey-suit job”, an occasion for distinguished diners to sit beneath distinguished portraits in a medieval banqueting hall scoffing what is surely, at least to BBC2 viewers, a distinguished dinner.

Arriving late at this scene, when all the other diners are already soaked in champagne, seated and looking askance at their dry rolls and lukewarm seafood, you can still pick out the glitterati who are not the literati.

In a smoked-glass bowl, you spy an earphoned Sarah Dunant preparing to broadcast to both viewers of The Late Show.

Taking my place at Table 14, I recognise the former Cabinet minister and erstwhile anthologist Kenneth Baker, Inspector Morse and his missus, and, ubiquitously, Salman Rushdie.

If, as Julian Barnes said, John Smith’s funeral was an IRA wet dream, which maniacal group would this gathering be manna to? The League Against Cruelty to Scallops? “A loose hand slid under a tablecloth, then up a nearby velvet skirt.”

This, I hasten to emphasise, was not my experience of the Booker dinner but that of Francis Jay, a young journo in Bradbury’s novel Doctor Criminale.

He attended the Booker the year of the so-called granny novelists, “apparently all on the further side of eighty, nearly every one of them tales about adolescent love affairs conducted to a point well short of tumescence under parasols on the beach at Deauville or Le Touquet … in the long lovely summer of 1913.”

Whatever criticisms there may have been of this year’s shortlist, no one at least has accused it of going Saga.

But there has been enough bitching to keep the Booker bubbling along nicely throughout the past six months.

Entering the Guildhall last Tuesday night, the thought crossed my mind that surely all the bickering and backbiting would now be over, that we might concentrate on the books, rather than on the circus sideshows.

But I knew that was unlikely.

Less than half an hour earlier, the five judges had chosen a winner who did not receive unanimous approval.

There was nothing unusual in that but as four of the judges donned their monkey-suits in a loo on the 27th floor of Booker’s corporate HQ in Victoria, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, the single dissenting voice, was expounding her views on the quality of the winner to a hypnotised radio interviewer.

As I flitted in and out of the room I heard her say: “It’s a disaster.”

Words such as terrible, boring, monotonous, Glaswegian, poured forth with a bile that belied her religious status.

“Was the judging acrimonious?” asked the interviewer.

“Only the last 20 minutes,” said Julia sweetly.

As I walked towards the door, she looked up at me, her smile just a little forced, her face ashen with anger.

Given the intensity and sincerity of her views, there was no knowing what might happen when Professor John Bayley stood up to announce the winner at the Guildhall.

Would she stomp out, cry foul, run up and grab the #20,000 winner’s cheque and rush it across to the writer she favoured? Meanwhile, in Bradbury-speak, the dinner proceeded as normal, the chattering classes chatted the chat the chattering classes like to chatter when they are just chatting, oblivious to the mayhem that would break out when the winner was announced.

“Ladies and gentleman,” said Prof Bayley, “the winner of the 1994 Booker Prize is …

James Kelman.”

For a millisecond, it seemed as though the news would be greeted in silence.

Then at last came the applause.

Kelman, dressed in suit and tie in defiance of dinner jacket convention, rose from his table and made slow progress towards the podium and the cheque for #20,000, advancing only as the phalanx of photographers retreated, a lit cigarette cupped in his hand.

After 26 years, Scotland had its long overdue first winner of the Booker Prize.

But as with much modern fiction, what should have been the end was only the beginning.

“I WONDERED if you might like to become a Booker judge?” It was the fruity voice of Martyn Goff, bookseller, author, eminence grise, guru and go-between for the Booker management committee, one of whose principle tasks is to nominate the judges for the annual #20,000 prize.

A few weeks later I was in London for the first meeting of the five judges in the Savile Club.

Traditionally, there are five Booker judges.

This year the jury comprised the chairman, Professor John Bayley, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, Dr Alastair Niven, literature director of the Arts Council, James Wood, the chief literary critic of the Guardian, who in 1993 swatted the Booker judges for excluding Vikram Seth’s epic A Suitable Boy from the shortlist, and myself.

Our first meeting was all sweetness and light.

At that stage we had only received about 10 books and we were more concerned with getting to know one another than indulging in literary sparring.

Professor Bayley, deceptively like the feckless Mr Brooke in Middlemarch, had a sceptical glint in his eye, which usually appeared when offered an opinion which perhaps he thought was not worth uttering.

But on second thoughts, it may just have been part of his eccentricity.

A couple of months later, in May, he was the unlikely subject of a fashion shoot in the Daily Telegraph, where he confessed to wearing blouses owned by his wife, the novelist Iris Murdoch.

He buys his jackets at Sue Ryder’s, according to the Telegraph, not because of social conscience, but because of “his habit of loading leftover potatoes into his pockets.”

I soon discovered that such otherworldliness is useful when it comes to judging the Booker.

It is not only the novel which comes under the microscope but the judges, the people who choose the judges, Booker for its benefaction, even readers who may be daft enough actually to buy books with the Booker imprimatur.

With misguided naivety I thought the process would be quite straightforward, an intense period of reading followed by animated discussion.

But I never expected that we would unanimously choose a winner, an unlikely result from five people of different tastes and background.

“You may think you’ll be able to make win, the book you want to win,” a former judge told James Wood.

“You won’t.”

I did think however that five people with an open outlook and a common purpose would be able to select the kind of book which the prize had been designed to reward; one by an author from Britain or what was formerly the Commonwealth which would stand the test of time and literary fashion and still be read 20 years from now.

The early reading provoked little but despair.

Between the first meeting in February and the next in August, the judges ploughed through novel after novel.

Significantly, however, James Wood wrote to me in March: “I think I liked the Kelman more than (perhaps) you did. The more one reads of the best of the stuff, the more one admires the Kelman for its difference — its verbal interest, its integrity, its proximity to the voice and feeling of its protagonist.”

John Bayley was similarly admiring, noting in one of his inimitable billets-doux: “My favourites so far Kelman and George M Brown — so good for the Scots! Found any dark horses? I haven’t.”

I quote from these two letters to demonstrate the inaccuracy of Rabbi Neuberger’s assertion that Kelman had only “one strong supporter”; as soon as they had read his novel How Late It Was, How Late four judges were highly impressed, and remained so throughout all our deliberations.

Meanwhile we ploughed on with our reading.

Often one read books which had been hyped or extravagantly praised in reviews only to be sorely disappointed.

Throughout the long months of the summer I kept a diary of my reading and looking back through it one recalls Dorothy Parker’s dismissal of a particularly grim tome as not something to be lightly put aside but to be hurled against a brick wall.

Here are some samples: Fine Lines by Simon Beckett: “Anal retentive art dealer catches a glimpse of his assistant in the nude, becomes obsessed by her and hires a foul-mouthed male model called Zippo to seduce her and so bring about the break-up of her relationship with an American anthropologist. Rubbish.”

The Mountain of Immoderate Desire by Leslie Wilson: “This was well reviewed in the Spectator, of all places. Contains easily the most ludicrous descriptions of sex so far, pace: ‘a chrysanthemum burst of pyrotechnic pleasure’; ‘sensation flowered below his belt’.”

Catalyst by Stanley Middleton: “The author is a former winner of the prize. Stolid, unspecific, undemonstrative, insistently unemotional. John Taylor, an accountant, parted from his wife, Stella, has an affair with his lumpen secretary, Samantha, falls in with his old music teacher, Michael, and his son Sebastian, a cellist in the Du Pre class. How it drones on. The blurb says he is ‘the Chekhov of suburbia’. Which Chekhov’s that then?” Books like these were by no means uncommon.

The quality of the books submitted was indiscriminate and often one wondered how they had found a publisher.

Had the authors insisted they be submitted for the Booker? Were publishers hoping to bludgeon the judges’ senses by overloading them with junk? Martyn Goff, in our original conversation, said we should expect to read around 90 books but every post seemed to bring a fresh batch; thrillers, sci-fi, romance, the gamut of the genres in addition to the expected lorryloads of literary fiction.

For the first time Booker’s management committee had decreed that in addition to the three books which each publisher is allowed to submit it would allow all former shortlisted and winning authors to be entered as a matter of course.

But just when it seemed that we were easing smoothly towards the longlist meeting in August, when the aim is to whittle the list down to 15 books, Prof Bayley issued a broadside at modern fiction.

Most of it, he said, was an “ordeal”, a theme to which he returned in his Booker speech.

There was what he defined as “a contemporary fictional specification”: “This might consist of taking a couple of rapes, a single mother of two, some social workers, a number of anatomical details, and stirring them well together.”

According to the Telegraph, his preferred candidate for the Booker was Anita Brookner, who he had summarily dismissed in one of his postcards to me.

But the row that broke out did the Booker publicity cause no harm and when we turned up for the longlist meeting at the Savile we were in no doubt of the Booker’s power to stir passions.

It was an amicable meeting conducted in civilised if somewhat fogeyish surroundings.

Because so many of the books had come in late not all the judges had read them and it proved impossible to come up with a hard list of 15.

Among the first on the list was the Kelman, strongly fancied by four of the judges.

The only book to receive a blanket commendation was Romesh Gunesekera’s Reef, a Sri Lankan odyssey, cleanly written and beautifully evoked.

Among the novels which were added to the list provisionally were a number which had not been read by all five judges.

One of them was by a first-time novelist Claire Messud, When the World Was Steady, which I had liked and I wanted to know what the others thought of it.

The following Sunday the story broke that Messud was the wife of James Wood and an unholy row blazed.

At such times it was easy to forget what the real purpose of the Booker Prize.

It was hard to ignore the constant Booker babble in the press.

Harder still to ignore, though, was the drivel that gushed from certain book reviewers when it came to a consideration of the shortlist which was announced on September 5.

From the judges’ point of view it was not a contentious meeting.

The first four books on the shortlist were Kelman, Gunesekera, Alan Hollinghurst’s A Folding Star and Jill Paton Walsh’s Knowledge of Angels.

The final two – Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Paradise and George Mackay Brown’s Beside the Ocean of Time – provoked some horsetrading.

But none of the judges expressed themselves unhappy with the list.

And apart from a couple of exceptions the press seemed to agree with us.

There was the usual lobby for the missing establishment names – Margaret Atwood, Kingsley Amis, Nadine Gordimer etc – but it was half-hearted.

The only real bile came from papers such as the Sunday Times, which had neglected to review a couple of the books.

Where the books had been reviewed it was invariably in glowing terms.

“A shortlist full of fine writing,” effused the Sunday Telegraph.

“To other than congratulate John Bayley and his fellow judges in the circumstances would be churlish and perverse.”

This then was the list that one bookseller declared “Mogadon” and which we were told was moving off the shelf like a fat man in a sack race.

But before Kelman was awarded the Booker he had sold 20,000 copies, a phenomenal performance in the present climate.

Before George Mackay Brown’s Beside the Ocean was shortlisted it had sold 4,000 copies; by the time of the final meeting that figure was up to 13,000.

“THE great day approaches.”

It was a letter from that man Martyn Goff.

“On Tuesday, October 11 we meet at the headquarters of Booker plc at 4pm … We should aim to reach the result not later than 6pm.”

The mood was different from our previous meetings.

There was a nervous, giggly tension in the air.

Television cameras filmed the judges coming out of the lift and going into the room where the deliberations were to take place.

Two hours from now, I thought, and it will be over, and I’ll be able to read anything I fancy without feeling guilty.

Just as we were settling down to start the meeting, Sir Michael Caine came in and handed John Bayley the copy of his speech which Bayley had discovered was missing on the way back from a rehearsal at the Guildhall.

Normally pink-gilled, John turned puce with relief.

“Which way to proceed?” he said, and suggested we might take a preliminary vote to see if we might knock off any of the books from the shortlist.

But it was decided that each of the judges should go through all six books and explain how they felt about them after the re-reading they had done since the shortlist was announced.

I was invited to go first.

Feelings about a book change when you read it a second time.

Some books yield hidden depths; others seem shallower and less intoxicating, in part because they have lost their ability to surprise.

I wanted a book to win that I could read years from now which would still seem fresh and which I could go on caring about.

Much as I admired Mackay Brown, Gurnah and Paton Walsh, they seemed to me diminished in stature after a re-reading.

The Hollinghurst, about one man’s obsession with a teenager, had grown on me, but while I admired the writing, the subject left me cold; it was not a book I could truly care about.

Gunsekera’s Reef, however, still retained much of its magic.

But my re-reading had also magnified some of its flaws.

I placed it second in my preferred order.

Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late was unequivocally the book I felt deserved to win the prize.

For the next hour or so the other judges stated their preferences.

We were divided into two camps: John Bayley, James Wood and I made Hollinghurst, Gunesekera and Kelman our favourites; Alastair Niven and Julia Neuberger opted for Mackay Brown, Paton Walsh and Gurnah.

“Apart from the Kelman,” said Rabbi Neuberger, “I’d be happy enough for any of them to win.”

By a combination of argument and voting the six were gradually reduced to three.

Reef, which had been the first book to make it on to the shortlist, was one of the first to come off.

It was followed by the Mackay Brown.

The Gurnah went soon after on a show of hands.

I looked at my watch; there was half an hour to go before Martyn Goff’s six o’clock deadline.

People all over London would be shoe-horning their way into dinner suits they hadn’t worn for at least a year; guests from out of town would already be on their way to the Guildhall.

But we were making heavy weather of choosing a winner from the last three.

“What did you make of the sex in the Hollinghurst,” I asked John Bayley, given his public pronouncements.

“I can’t say I was thrilled about it.”

James Wood read out a passage but it backfired when it turned out to be one Julia Neuberger particularly disliked.

For Alastair Niven the trouble with the Kelman, peppered on every page with the word ‘fuck’ was that it failed “my aunt Mabel test.”

The chairman suggested we vote, giving three points to our first choice, two to our second and one to our third.

Each book scored 10 points.

We tried again, this time nominating only two books, rewarding the first with two points and the second with one.

Again Kelman, Hollinghurst and Paton Walsh scored evenly; five points each.

It was now 10 minutes past the deadline.

People were looking anxiously through the window of the door.

“Time is pressing on,” said Martyn Goff.

“You will need to come to a decision very soon.”

John Bayley drew a handkerchief across his perspiring brow.

We took a non-binding vote to see who would win if we all voted only for a winner.

Kelman received one vote, the other two writers received two each.

It looked like curtains for Kelman.

If Kelman was eliminated who then would you vote for? asked James Wood.

“The Paton Walsh,” I said.

James hung his head in disbelief.

“But why don’t you and John vote with me for Kelman since you both think so highly of the book?” I suggested.

The chairman pondered.

“I could not support that,” said Julia Neuberger, “I’d have to go public.”

The chairman called for a show of hands: Kelman scored three, Paton Walsh two.

“It looks as if Kelman’s got it,” said Prof Bayley, relieved at last to have a winner.

“I really think you’ve made the wrong decision,” said Julia.

But by then Martyn Goff was out of the room and relaying the news to Booker’s publicists.

In a few seconds those who needed to know the result prior to the announcement at the dinner would be able to call it up on their computers.

To those inclined to protest after the event the only response can be to remind them of the title of the 1994 winner of the Booker: How Late It Was, How Late.


At the time of writing, Alan Taylor was the Arts and Features Editor of The Scotsman.


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