Monarchs and Heads of State meet here for State banquets, the Lord Mayor and Sheriffs of London are elected here, and have been since 1189AD, the city’s highest honour the Freedom of the City is awarded here, it is the home of the City of London and has been the centre of city government since the Middle Ages.
The place is of course the Guildhall and last evening it was the turn of the literary world to bask in the splendour of the Guildhall’s Great Hall when the Man Booker Prize winner for 2007 was announced at a truly glittering gala dinner event.
Included among the 500 guests at the hottest literary event of the year were the High Commissioners for Australia, New Zealand and Pakistan, the Ambassador for Ireland; the Minister for Culture, several Lords & Baronesses from the House of Lords; heads of all the major publishing houses, along with the CEO’s of Waterstones , Borders, Amazon and WH Smith; representatives from The British Council and The Arts Council of Britain plus a host of authors, literary agents, and publishers as well as literary editors and journalists from the BBC, Channel 4, ITN and all the major UK newspapers and various magazines.
Authors I talked with included A.S.Byatt (winner 1990 for Possession), Clare Tomalin, (biographer of Katherine Mansfield & Jane Austen among others), Michael Frayn, (playwright, novelist, translator, married to Clare Tomalin), Robert McCrum, (author, Literary Editor The Observer, former Publisher at Faber), and Victoria Glendinning (just back from attending festivals in Australia, and a four day holiday in Tasmania that she raved about), while others I noticed included Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing, (herself shortlisted on three occasions without having been a winner), Penelope Lively (1987 winner for Moon Tiger), Ben Okri (winner 1991 for The Famished Road), Beryl Bainbridge (shortlist 1998), Joanna Trollope, Michael Holroyd, Richard E Grant, Colm Toibin, Ronald Harwood (who also won an Academy Award for his script of The Pianist), plus of course the shortlisted authors Nicola Barker, Anne Enwright, Mohsin Hamid, Lloyd Jones, Ian McEwan and Indra Sinha.
And then there was the tiny kiwi contingent visiting from New Zealand especially for the event, Lloyd Jones’ NZ publisher Geoff Walker, Lloyd Jones’ literary agent Michael Gifkins, and Bookman Beattie.
I counted myself especially fortunate to be there as there are only 500 tickets, you cannot buy them, and the invitees are entirely at the discretion of the organizers. Demand for tickets vastly exceeds the number available.
So there we all were, the atmosphere was electric and finally after superb wines and a fine meal came the big announcement that the rank outsider in the field Anne Enright was the winner for her rather bleak novel The Gathering.
Most present seemed taken by surprise and there was a moment of stunned silence before the audience burst into applause. I have to say that the winner also seemed taken by surprise.
Certainly I was, like most present I had thought it was a two horse race between Ian McEwan and Lloyd Jones and in my assessment I had placed this book fifth. At our table was a senior person from the bookies William Hill and he said that speaking as a bookie he was delighted because there was so little money on Anne Enright but as a reader he was astonished.
Immediately after the announcement Lloyd Jones was interviewed on his mobile phone by Maggie Barry on Radio New Zealand National. He was most gracious about not winning and said just being on the shortlist was in itself being like a winner and spoke of the many foreign language sales that had been made following Mister Pip’s shortlisting.
Then it was my turn to talk to Maggie and I made the point that while naturally disappointed for Lloyd the positive thing for him is that he can now get back to Berlin and get on with writing his next novel rather than having to continue with the endless round of media engagements which have been distracting him these past few weeks.
A.S.Byatt, (actually she is Dame Antonia Byatt), said to me before dinner that the winner’s life would be turned upside down for the next one to two years with demands for media interviews and background stories plus an avalanche of invitations from literary festivals around the globe.
At least Lloyd can avoid that.
Other people I caught up with during the evening were the former CEO of Penguin Books, and of course my former boss, the man who insisted that Penguin Books New Zealand should be publishing NZ books in the days when we were simply a distribution company, the mercurial Peter Mayer; Dr.Alastair Niven, who for many years ran the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and with whom I developed a warm friendship during my years as a judge of that prize, (wonderful to catch up with him, and being the true gentleman that he is took me under his wing as I was on my own and ensured I met lots of interesting people, thanks Alastair); Antonia Byatt (daughter of A.S.Byatt), who is the recently appointed Director of Literary Strategy at the Arts Council England; and Stuart Etherington of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations who is visiting New Zealand in February.
Michael Frayn and I had an interesting chat about notable NZ author the late Maurice Shadbolt whom he had met while in NZ in the 1970’s while AS Byatt asked after her old friend C.K.Stead, and Peter Clark asked after Ian Wedde. It is indeed a small world .
In almost a lifetime in the book industry I have to say that this was the most spectacular book awards event I have attended. Superbly organized, stunning venue, (understatement), excellent food and top class French wine, distinguished writers as well as many other most interesting guests , live TV coverage (BBC) of announcement of winner; my congratulations to all involved. It was both a privilege and an honour to have been present.
Next year is the 40th anniversary of the founding of the prize and Peter Clarke, Chief Executive of Man Group, is promising a special event to mark the occasion.
Hard to imagine any event more special than last night.
I will try and get hold of a copy of the address by the chair of the judging panel, Sir Howard Davies, but I did note several interesting pieces of trvia he quoted – he said the books read by the judges ran to a total of 35,029 pages, the shortest novel submitted was a mere 117 pages, the longest to 838 pages, (interestingly enough both ended up on the shortlist), the average length was 318 pages and the price range was 6.99 pds to 18.99 pds.