Dotti Irving’s Diary: partying at the Palace to celebrate 50 years of the Man Booker Prize

One of the highlights of our celebrations has been the Golden Man Booker – five former winners, shortlisted by five judges, and then put to a public vote.

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It’s not every day of the week that one has the opportunity to organise a party at Buckingham Palace. But then it’s not every day of the week that the Man Booker Prize celebrates its 50th anniversary. So, thanks to the generosity of HRH the Duchess of Cornwall, who has supported the prize for many years, here I am in the august surroundings of the ballroom, the largest and most imposing of the palace’s 775 rooms. I’m not alone. Apart from the Duchess, we have some previous winners of the prize as well as the literary hot-set of the UK and beyond. There are 240 people in all.

One of the first guests I spot is Howard Jacobson, who won the prize in 2010. Howard is one of the funniest people I know. He and his wife live in a smart apartment block in central London where, by coincidence, my company Four Colman Getty used to have its office. When I tell him that, he replies with glee that Michael Ondaatje, the joint 1992 winner, is currently staying in the same block – and that the previous day, Michael and Kazuo Ishiguro (the 1989 winner) had met there to discuss their Southbank Centre event at the weekend. Three Booker winners under one roof – what are the chances?

The chances are much higher this weekend with the festival of fiction at Southbank, a one-off jamboree of some of the world’s best fiction writers coming together in celebration of the prize’s golden jubilee.

Published by Shattered Window

The festival’s opening event is a cracker: Hilary Mantel and Pat Barker on how historical fiction can shed light on the present. Jim Naughtie, as chair, drew out the parallels between these two writers, one whose books are set in the Tudor age and the other’s during the First World War. Riveting stuff despite the vague distraction of subtitles running along the screen behind the speakers’ heads. “Trilogy” came out as “thrillogy” and the publisher Chatto & Windus became “Shattered Window”. Jim grilled Hilary on when we might see the final book in the Wolf Hall thrillogy but she was having none of it, other than to confirm that it’s called The Mirror and the Light, and Cromwell is elevated to Thomas Lord Cromwell. 

Salman and the special forces

My involvement with what was then the Booker Prize goes back to 1993 when Salman Rushdie won the “Booker of Bookers” for Midnight’s Children and Roddy Doyle won the annual award with Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. I’ll never forget the evening Salman won. The fatwa was in full force, so he was seldom seen in public. It was a coup to persuade him to come to Waterstones in Kensington High Street to collect his award. I have two memories – fighting our way through a terrifying army of camera crews, and being simultaneously comforted and horrified by the machine-gun-toting special police on the roof of the bookshop.

Cash and carry

The prize has seen many changes in my time. There is now a second award – the Man Booker International Prize – for a novel in translation. Not a lot of people make the link between Booker – the cash and carry business whose lorries are often to be seen ploughing up and down the M6 – and the company that set up the prize in 1969. The Man Group – an investment management firm – came on board as sponsor in 2002, and through their generosity the Booker Prize Foundation has been able to expand the scope of the award to embrace a whole range of literacy and literary projects in prisons, libraries, sixth form colleges and universities. The latest issue of the TLS features a prize supplement in which a former prisoner talks about the importance of reading. Movingly, he cites the ability of books to transport people in confinement to “squeeze through the bars of their cells and float away”.

An audience with Ken Biro

Back to our festival. On Saturday night I slip into the back to hear Ben Okri read from part of his unpublished essay on the importance of reading. One comment particularly resonates with me, in the light of the famous writers I’ve been dealing with over the past few months: “Fame is like a wild horse. If you don’t ride it properly, it throws you.” As I leave, I bump into Peter Straus, literary agent and the world’s walking authority on the prize. He tells me that the author Caryl Phillips has come up with a brilliant anagram of Ben’s name. From now on, Ben will forever be Ken Biro.

Ben’s fame story reminds me of a comment Bill Nighy made when I met him recently (be still my beating heart!). Apropos fame, and its effect on people, Bill told me that there is an oft-used phrase in his business: “Never work with award winners.”

Victory for The English Patient

One of the highlights of our celebrations has been the Golden Man Booker – five former winners, read and shortlisted by five judges, and then put to the public vote to determine the best of the best. Robert McCrum, judge for the 1970s, once wrote: “First lines for novelists are a bit like penalty kicks for goalies, a heart-stopping opportunity for a great performance.” While the nation holds its breath to see if Harry Kane wins the Golden Boot, the Southbank waits to find out who has won the Golden Man Booker.

McCrum chose VS Naipaul’s In A Free State, and the author was at Southbank with his wife, Nadira, who made a brief, brilliant speech on his behalf. Yet Michael Ondaatje won overall for The English Patient. He had described the process by which he writes as archaeological unearthing and, in accepting the award, said that he didn’t think it was the best book on the list! 

So, two years in the planning and the festival is finally over. It’s the hottest day of the year and I’m only sorry that Jeppe Hein’s Appearing Rooms Fountain – where earlier in the day children and grown-ups alike had been leaping in fully clothed to cool down – has been switched off for the night. I could do with a swim. 

Dotti Irving is chief executive of the cultural consultancy Four Culture

This article appears in the 13 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit farce