Man, I’d like to judge the Booker

I have just come back from lunch at St John, the splendid restaurant in Clerkenwell that serves up bone marrow and other bits of animals that the English normally eschew. In the old days, I would not have been able to write a sentence beginning "I have just come back from lunch at St John" without it taking me half an hour of tiresome rewriting. Lunch at St John - or the other favoured venue when I could get publishers and agents to stuff me with food and drink, the Quality Chop House on the Farringdon Road - used to be a luxurious affair. I would tend to get there ten minutes early so I could grab a glass of champagne on the sly.

When my date, or meal ticket, arrived, I would then have a big dry martini. I think a restaurant stands or falls on the quality of its pre-lunch cocktails, don't you? Then there'd be a bottle of something white to go with the first course. Then there'd be a nice bottle of claret to go with the main. This would tend to disappear rather quickly and so we'd have another one. Then there'd be a half bottle of dessert wine to go with the pudding. Then I'd order an absolutely enormous Armagnac to go with a teeny-weeny coffee, arriving home at about six and ready for the pre-dinner bracer.

That is how lunches are meant to go, but tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis, and the person buying me lunch is a writer, not an agent or a publisher, so even if I'd been in the mood for a Grande Bouffe-style blowout, I wouldn't have wanted to stiff a novelist for the tab.

This is also a kind of working lunch: Tom McCarthy, Booker favourite and chair of the International Necronautical Society, and I are thrashing out some details about the interview I will be conducting with him on stage at the South Bank on the 27th. By a strange coincidence, I'm also chatting with Howard Jacobson at the Hampstead and Highgate Literary Festival in the same week. I dunno. You wait years to be asked to interview a Booker shortlistee and then two come along at once.

I am normally highly averse to this kind of thing, especially after what happened at the Cheltenham Literary Festival in 1990-something, when I interviewed Alex Garland and Nicholas Blincoe in front of 500 people while half covered in mud. But Tom and Howard both requested me specifically, and even though the former's latest got something of a spanking in this very magazine, I am a fan of both authors and it's an honour to oblige them. And Tom himself is delightful company. Conversation between us tends to revolve around Tintin, Samuel Beckett and cricket, which means we could go on ad infinitum.

Dressed for dinner

Later on, I get an email from a publicity person at Jonathan Cape. She says she understands that I had a lovely lunch with Tom McCarthy and invites me to join the Cape team for the Booker Prize dinner. This is, I feel, something of a result. My feelings about the Booker are mixed. Despite being probably the only person in the world who makes what could loosely be called a living from reviewing books, and having done so full-time for 20 years, I find myself a little peeved that I've never been asked to have anything to do with the prize. My official position on this is that having to read 200 contemporary novels in three months is not my idea of fun, and I am glad to have dodged that particular bullet, but in my heart of hearts I know that this is sour grapes and it would be nice to be asked, even if it's just so I can say "No thanks". (The workload of a Booker judge really does sound Stakhanovite.) So, being asked to don the black tie without having to go to the trouble of writing or judging any novels sounds pretty good.

I nonchalantly email the first Mrs Lezard, asking if my DJ is still at the family home.

I know the whole business of dressing for dinner is ridiculous, but it appeals to my inner Bertie Wooster - and besides, I take a smug satisfaction in being able to tie my own bow tie. And, as I contemplate my new-found respectability within the literary world, I find my smug satisfaction soaring to dangerous levels. Even the nagging fear that I may not be able to fit into the DJ doesn't worry me. After all, it is perfectly acceptable these days to go to black-tie bashes in a terrifically daring ordinary lounge suit, thus demonstrating one's devil-may-care attitude to social conventions.
In the end, it turns out that "there has been some confusion" at Cape's end and they don't have a place for me after all. The turnaround has been rather swift, but at least the natural order of things has been restored. I feel less Bertie Wooster, more Charles Pooter.

Although even he managed to get invited to the Mansion House Ball.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Catholicism in crisis