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10 November 2021

Rowan Williams’s Diary: Judging the Booker Prize, the ethics of climate change, and the birth of our first grandchild

I look forward to telling my grandson his birth was toasted within a few hours alongside the 2021 Booker winner.

By Rowan Williams

Rain drilling on the corrugated iron roof: a night at a friend’s hermitage in west Wales to reset a little ahead of a busy week. In the morning, a dramatic sunrise through cloud banks, a distinctly dishevelled robin looking rather dazed outside the window, some of the new intake of sheep wandering by. After mass in Welsh, I head back to Cardiff to try to clear the inbox, and look in on a local event to launch some short films about the contribution of young ethnic minority people in Wales to community care during the pandemic. It’s a glorious celebration of generous, imaginative enterprise. Then off to London very early on Tuesday 2 November for the final meeting of the Booker Prize judges (Llandovery to the Groucho Club in Soho in under 24 hours is more than one kind of long journey). As the discussion starts, news arrives that my daughter has gone into labour – our first grandchild, so extra excitement and anxieties, and a background to the day’s work that won’t be ignored.

Novel deliberations

It’s our first meeting in person as judges, and there is real delight at seeing one another in the flesh. It has felt like a lively, warm and engaged group all through the months of Zoom meetings, and it rapidly becomes clear that we are going to get on in the same spirit face to face. An animated general exchange begins about what makes a great novel. Good novels are ones that we want to put into friends’ hands, that will be read in a decade and more, that earn their effects and think through their rhythm and composition; great novels take us somewhere new, whether in evoking experience that hasn’t been chronicled, or the new music of linguistic inventiveness, or a formal or structural freshness. Then, we set to an unhurried but sometimes intense revisiting of five superb books that we’ve all now read several times. We read passages to each other, argue about whether this or that effect is deliberate, point out patterns that we think someone else has missed; we enthuse, dissect, disagree, rethink, and gradually, by mid-afternoon, arrive. Time for a glass of something and much exuberance over the decision and the whole process; a strong sense of becoming genuine friends through this work.

[see also: Booker Prize-winner Damon Galgut: “South Africa is not a country that speaks with one voice”]

Toasting new life

No news yet from the hospital. But Wednesday morning it all happens in a bit of a rush (as we find out later), and our grandson is born. Jane and I happily embark on cancelling all that can be cancelled in the coming days so that we can be with the family as soon as our daughter is out of hospital. At the Booker party in the evening, thanks to the kindness of our hosts, glasses are raised to the new baby. I look forward to telling him in due course that his birth was celebrated within a few hours in the Groucho Club alongside the 2021 Booker winner.

A confusing flood of not very audible conversations in a very crowded room – including a brief word with various diary writers from the press (tempted to write a diary item about diary items…). Memorable encounters with some of the authors (especially a brief and illuminating exchange with the shortlisted Patricia Lockwood about how language expresses more than it seems capable of), and a happy reunion with the poet Ben Okri, who has been a generous friend to projects I have been involved in.

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Giving back control

A quick trip to Cambridge for a panel discussion with the secretary-general of the UN (fresh – if that’s the word – from Glasgow) and a couple of brilliantly articulate students on ethics and climate change. A gear shift? Well, sort of. But in fact my week’s themes crowd in. Talking about future generations has acquired more concrete reality in the last day or so. Prompted by a recent conversation I had with a Jewish friend, I say a bit about the shemitta ideal in the Torah, the “jubilee year” in which slaves are freed and the land is left fallow, so that we remember we don’t and can’t have a proprietorial relation to what is around us, human or non-human. Reflecting on the preceding days’ discussions, I wonder if the point of art is to spring us from just that trap of being proprietorial, to loosen our chokehold on what we think we own and understand and make us ready to learn and receive again. Damon Galgut’s Booker winner suddenly comes into fresh focus – a darkly satirical look at the ingenious resources we devote to preserving ownership, control, enslavement.

And then to our daughter in Walthamstow at last. The week started with rain pounding on the roof, something uncontrollable arriving, sheer grace if you like. And here it is again in quite different shape. A gratuitous, vulnerable, lovely new beginning.

[see also: Yogita Limaye’s Diary: The mercurial Taliban, selling children to survive, and the betrayal of Afghan women]

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This article appears in the 10 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the Masks