A WEEK IN BOOKS

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The Independent Culture
The Society of Authors presented its annual awards on Tuesday evening at King's College, London. This is not an event that usually generates much in the way of hot controversy: even the fire that broke out in the basement at 8.15 pm failed to dissipate the air of school prizegiving that prevails on these occasions. Of the nine Prizes and Awards, three carry the whiff of donations to the needy: the Travelling Scholarships, the Tom-Gallon Award for "writers of limited means'' and the Cholmondeley Awards, given to poets who have survived for years without actually starving. Perhaps because of this charitable impulse, there was some muttering about the pounds 10,000 Betty Trask Prize going to Robert Newman, a chap better known as half of the Newman and Baddiel comedy duo, whose sell-out show at Wembley Arena in 1993 inspired arts commentators to talk about stand-up comedy as "the new rock 'n' roll''. Newman's novel, Dependence Day, is a jolly romp concerning drugs, murder and late-night supermarket shopping, and would probably not have lifted the spirits of the prize's founder Ms Trask, who was keener on tales of adventure and romance. But people's objections seemed to have more to do with seeing the money go to a languid and rich entertainer whose on-stage bon mots include the line, "I've completely changed my attitude to drugs since I got some cash...''

Later, at a party, I met David Baddiel who was enthusiastic about his former partner's writing success, and emphatic that Dependence Day was "a genuinely good novel''. Had they seen each other lately? "No, not for 18 months, since the Wembley gig''. And what was Baddiel doing these days? "Writing a novel, actually. I'm on page 122. And no, it's not entirely about a bloke going through a mid-life crisis...''. Well, well. So that's what happens to former satirists. The Mary Whitehouse Experience becomes The Betty Trask Experience. Fiction, despite what you may have heard, may turn out to be the new rock 'n' roll after all.

John Walsh

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