Where next for the Man Booker Prize?

Stella Rimington responds to the NS's criticisms of the shortlist.

Leo Robson's unforgiving assessment of both the composition of the panel of judges for this year's Man Booker Prize and the shortlist those judges have come up with has caused some fluttering in the dovecotes. In Saturday's Guardian, in an interview with Stuart Jeffries, Rimington responded to Robson's charge that "you wouldn't ask John Bayley to be a consultant on Spooks". "People weirder than me have chaired the Booker," she insisted. "A previous chair was Michael Portillo." "The aim of the Booker," Rimington went on, "was to appeal to the average intelligent reader and we [the judges] are average intelligent readers."

Rimington's appeal to the "average intelligent reader" is fair enough, but, as Robson pointed out, she and her fellow judges seem decidedly pessimistic about the kinds of demands that might be made on such a reader. One of the judges, diarist and former MP (and regular NS contributor) Chris Mullin said he'd wanted to choose "readable" books. But, Robson wrote, "some of us recoil from the use of 'readable' to mean (essentially) 'can be read without struggle/thinking/turning off the telly. And people who have been selected for their skill as readers should not be making a point of using 'read' as a noun."

In any event, the result of the judges' deliberations was a longlist (never mind the shortlist) that ignored, inter alia, David Bezmozgis, Philip Hensher, Hisham Matar, Ali Smith, Ross Raisin, Hari Kunzru, Belinda McKeon, David Miller, Tessa Hadley, Edward St Aubyn, Michael Ondaatje, Adam Mars-Jones, Dermot Healy.

At a press conference on 6 September, the administrator of the Man Booker Prize, Ion Trewin, insisted the judges had chosen six books "as exciting as [in] previous years", whilst at the same acknowledging, with a hint of desperation, the "unusual nature" of the shortlist - which rather gave the game away.

I gather there have been mutterings about Trewin's stewardship of the Prize, and even a suggestion from some in positions of influence that he might consider "falling on his sword". Whatever he decides to do, if, as Robson put it, "things continue as they are, it isn't hard to imagine a time when the prize will be seen as a way not of celebrating novels, just of selling them". Indeed, some in the literary world are wondering if it isn't time to start another prize altogether.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

NANCY JO IACOI/GALLERY STOCK
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There are only two rules for an evening drink: it must be bitter, and it must be cold

A Negroni is the aperitif of choice in bars everywhere from London to Palermo - and no wonder.

The aperitif has the odd distinction of being the only alcohol that can always rely on a sober audience: it is the opener, the stimulant, a spur to the appetite for good food and good conversation. This preparatory beverage is considered the height of sophistication, and certainly nobody labouring in field or factory ever required a pep to their evening appetite. Still, to take a drink before one starts drinking is hardly clever behaviour. So why do it?

One reason is surely the wish to separate the working day from the evening’s leisure, an increasingly pressing matter as we lose the ability to switch off. This may change the nature of the aperitif, which was generally supposed to be light, in alcohol and character. Once, one was expected to quaff a pre-dinner drink and go in to dine with faculties and taste buds intact; now, it might be more important for those who want an uninterrupted meal to get preprandially plastered. That way, your colleagues may contact you but they won’t get much sense out of you, and pretty soon they’ll give up and bother someone else.

The nicest thing about the aperitif, and the most dangerous, is that it doesn’t follow rules. It’s meant to be low in alcohol, but nobody ever accused a gin and tonic or a Negroni (Campari, gin and vermouth in equal portions) of that failing; and sherry, which is a fabulous aperitif (not least because you can keep drinking it until the meal or the bottle ends), has more degrees of alcohol than most wines. An aperitif should not be heavily perfumed or flavoured, for fear of spoiling your palate, yet some people love pastis, the French aniseed drink that goes cloudy in water, and that you can practically smell across the Channel. They say the scent actually enhances appetite.

Really only two rules apply. An aperitif should be bitter – or, at any rate, it shouldn’t be sweet, whatever the fans of red vermouth may tell you. And it must be cold. Warm drinks such as Cognac and port are for after dinner. Not for nothing did Édith Piaf warble, in “Mon apéro”, about drowning her amorous disappointments in aperitifs: fail to cool your passions before sharing a table, and you belong with the barbarians.

On the other hand, conversing with your nearest over a small snack and an appropriate beverage, beyond the office and before the courtesies and complications of the dinner table, is the essence of cultured behaviour. If, as is sometimes thought, civilisation has a pinnacle, surely it has a chilled apéro carefully balanced on top.

The received wisdom is that the French and Italians, with their apéritifs and aperitivos, are the experts in these kinds of drinks. Certainly the latter are partial to their Aperol spritzes, and the former to such horrid, wine-based tipples as Lillet and Dubonnet. But the English are good at gin and the Americans invented the Martini. As for Spain, tapas were originally snacks atop a covering that kept the flies out of one’s pre-dinner drink: tapa means lid.

Everywhere, it seems, as evening approaches, people crave a drink that in turn will make them salivate: bitterness, the experts tell us, prepares the mouth to welcome food. The word “bitter” may come from “bite”, in which case the aperitif’s place before dinner is assured.

I like to think that a good one enables the drinker to drown all sour feelings, and go in to dinner cleansed and purified. Fanciful, perhaps. But what better lure to fancy than a beverage that exists only to bring on the evening’s pleasures?

Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer Pio Cesare Food and Wine Writer of the Year

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times