And the winner is... not you (again)

Literary prizes provide the lift to any writing life. The novelist Justin Cartwright shares with us some of the speeches he'd have made if only he'd been given a few more opportunities...
Click to follow

Author's Note: I found this collection of speeches in the inside pocket of an old jacket of mine, a black Armani jacket, bought at a knockdown price, from an Oxfam shop in l986, the year I was nominated for the now defunct Sunday Express Prize. The jacket has been worn about six or seven times; in an attempt to look writerly, I have sometimes worn it with a Nehru shirt, sometimes with an open neck. It has doubled as a dinner jacket when the occasion absolutely demanded. None of these speeches was ever delivered, because, although shortlisted, I did not win any of these awards.

SUNDAY EXPRESS AWARD, 1986

I must say for a young writer, it is a great honour to have - in some sense - beaten Graham Greene to this award. I don't suppose Mr Greene is sitting in a bar in Nice worrying about not winning, whereas this recognition means a great deal to me. It was also a pleasure to have been in the field with the other shortlisted authors, A J Mendel, Doris Greenholme, and Sebastian Snoddy. I particularly thank the judges - none of whom is known to me personally (SLY SMILE) - for their faith in my book and I take pride in the fact that the aim of the prize, to bring popular and accessible books to the notice of the reading public, is exactly what I had in mind with The Beagle Has Landed. Now I would like to say that, although my book is a thriller with animal interest, I see it at a deeper level as an exploration of our relationship to our society. A fair analogy might be with Brighton Rock, written when Greene was in his pomp.

I would like to thank my agent, who is currently in traction after falling off his horse, and my publishers, Publish Your Book Ltd. While it is a great pity that they are now out of business, I owe them a debt of gratitude. And they owe me royalties, so if anybody knows where the directors have re-located, please let me know. (WAIT FOR LAUGH).

Anyway, it is with deep gratitude that I receive this award, and I can assure you that, in the great Beaverbrook tradition, I shall continue to brandish the sword of liberty and defend myself with the shield of justice in everything I write.

THE PIONEER AWARDS, SOUTH AFRICA, l989

It is always a pleasure to be recognised in the country of your birth. As one of our great South African writers, Charles Herman Bosman said, we never shake the red dust of our native land from our souls. Deep down we are infiltrated by the landscape, the scents, the sunsets of this mysterious country. I often remind myself of what the Bushman people say about the flight of the batteleur eagle: never let its shadow fall on the under-fives. So much knowledge, so much mystery, so much of what D H Lawrence called the delicate magic of life has been lost in Europe, where I now live far from the chatter of the guinea-fowl, the haunting cry of the fish eagle, the smell of the khaki-weed and the noise of the Kreepy-Krawly in the swimming pool. Exile from all you love is hard, but I believe that for a writer it can provide a necessary and sharper vision - what Graham Greene, alongside whom I was recently nominated for a major prize in Britain, so memorably called a splinter of ice in the soul.

Despite my long absence in England at boarding school, a so-called Major Public School (MAKE QUOTATION MARKS WITH FINGERS), followed by a spell at Sandhurst - where for my sins I was runner-up for the Sword of Honour - exile has helped me immeasurably, particularly with my novel The Red Sunset which you have so kindly honoured with this attractive statuette. I must mention here a trip provided by the travel pages of The Evening News and Kwagga Safaris, which refreshed me on some of the essential elements of life in South Africa. I would make one political point, however, which is that talk of releasing Nelson Mandela from jail is premature. There are other leaders who have more experience of government, for example my friend Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, to whom I was introduced by another great South African Writer, Sir Laurens van der Post. I think I can say with confidence, that Sir Laurens, Prince Charles and Lady Thatcher are backing the Chief all the way, and that from my personal knowledge of him gained over lunch at the Travellers Club, he will make a fine president of our country. But this evening is all about literature, not politics, and so let me thank you, or as we say in Zulu (although you don't hear much Zulu spoken in Islington these days), Nyabonga gakulu.

WHITBREAD AWARD, 1991

In my youth at one of our major educational establishments, I was an enthusiastic consumer of the products of this historic brewery. I once swam across the Avon under the illusion that it was the Hellespont, entirely under the influence of a few pints of this fine brew. But enough of that. Literature is a fickle mistress. Since the warm reception for my book, The Red Sunset, I have been obedient to her demands. So it is with great pleasure and gratitude that I accept this award, not only for myself, but mindful of the fact that those of us who till the literary fields lead a lonely life.

In fact my wife and I have separated, and I am currently living in rented accommodation on the outskirts of Reading. While this cannot be attributed directly to my literary endeavours, it is true that my wife believed her new partner, a solicitor, would be able to provide more of the creature comforts. The literary life is a heroic life, the only one for me, but I think it is an opportune moment to point out that the novel prize of £2,500 works out at £1.11p for every hour I have laboured on my book, Memoirs of a Chinese Courtesan at the Court of Xao Jin. This does not, of course, make allowance for electricity, coffee, the occasional bottle of Chilean red, and the prescription charges for my medication. In fact, when I take those into account, I estimate I have been working for minus 45p per hour. The advance for this book went to pay a small portion of the debt accumulated since The Red Sunset so narrowly failed to win two awards. But this is an evening of celebration. I know how runners-up Mathew Knowles and Deborah Jones and Andrea Strauss must be feeling. Believe me, I have been there: I would say only this to them, I am conscious that the winner is no more than the person who on the night gets the nod. I am, of course, grateful, but humbled, that it is me. I thank you, and yes please, make mine a pint, Colonel Whitbread.

GOLDEN SEAGULL LITERARY PRIZE, KNOKKE LA ZOUTE, 1993

Imagine my surprise when I was told that I had been shortlisted in "the best translation into Flemish" section of Knokke La Zoute's top literary award! I have enjoyed my short stay in your town, and think that its out-of-season charms should be more widely known. As the only one of the shortlisted authors who was able to make it here tonight, I think I can speak for the others when I say that being nominated for this award has been an enormous honour. Every writer longs to be known outside his country, or her country: (let's not forget the lady writers, whom my compatriot Roy Campbell described as writing with their brooms and sweeping up with their pens. To use the vernacular, that was out of order, Roy.) I have found that Belgian pink-coloured beer is very much to my taste too, and that the local dish, Waterzooi, which looks like everything the chef couldn't find a home for, is far more subtle than it appears at first glance. The North Sea at this time of year, though angry, has a certain grandeur. The gales flung off it towards my hotel, the Relais Routier, Avec Quelques Douches, were fortunately partly deflected by the excellent circular motorway in the direction of Brussels. On the walk over here to the Cultural Centre, I longed for at least one of Rene Magritte's umbrellas. Anyway, I apologise for the state of my jacket.

My book, The Red Sunset, is set in my native land where the weather is a whole lot better than this even in mid-winter. Still, if you believe in Graham Greene's dictum that a writer needs a splinter of ice in his soul (or her soul), this is the place. There are splinters of ice in my underwear too. On behalf of all writers everywhere, I give thanks to you, and to seagulls, even the drably coloured ones that live on bread crusts and bait. Many thanks, Dank u wel.

THE BOOKER PRIZE, 1995

Let's be honest. The Booker is the Holy Grail for all writers. My humble book, You'll Be a Man, a title I borrowed from Kipling, is a fictionalised account of my time in modern Siberia, where I worked in sub-zero temperatures in the seal-rendering and tanning business on the banks of the Flinks River, among the exiles of society, the people described by Trotsky as being on the scrapheap of history. By the way, I want here and now to scotch the canard that I was on assignment for Condé Nast Traveller, although I did manage to get in a little fishing for Arctic Char. Some of these wretched people, commemorated in my book, are actually the descendants of the first Russians to move to this inhospitable land hundreds of years ago. My three-and-a-half weeks there gave me an extraordinary insight into the hardships that human beings can endure. It was this which I tried to reproduce in fictional form, with my central characters Ludmilla and Sergei Rebrov. So this award is as much for them as it is for me. I thank the judges and I extend my compliments to the other shortlisted writers, all of whom have become close friends. I would like particularly to thank Prunella Timothy, who enunciated so clearly in the readings we did together around the country. I think they set the scene well for my own readings.

ORANGE PRIZE, 2002

By entering as a woman under the name of Corine Zimblast, I was not in any way suggesting that I am hostile to prizes exclusively for women. Quite the contrary: I simply feel that the category "women" should not be seen in a solely biological sense. Tonight I am dressed by Grayson Perry, but more than that I have taken on board his deep-felt belief that he has several identities. It seems to me axiomatic that a writer is entitled to write in the voice of, and in the identity of, anyone he or she chooses. So my book, Lovers and Angels, is a wholly serious literary endeavour, not a pastiche or a parody. For the last 18 months I have existed and thought as a woman. Fortunately in Reading, where I live in order to escape the metropolitan social round, I have been able to enter unremarked into the minds both of the writer, Corine Zimblast, and the characters in her novel. I hope that my 11th-hour disclosure will not in any way cast a dampener on tonight's proceedings, but will be interpreted for what it is, an homage to women's literature. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Apologies for my tears.

THE BRITISH BOOK AWARDS (THE 'NIBBIES'), 2005

It used to be the Booker, but now it's Richard and Judy. Let's face it, no one wants that old-world, heavy literary stuff anymore where everyone is called Francesca or Henry and went to Oxford or talks about art history and philosophy. No, the books of the moment, like my own graphic novel, Osaka Junction 8, which combines elements of Japanese calligraphy with lyrics from contemporary music and traditional Kobe beef recipes, is the way of the future. Books don't have to be about one thing. Richard and Judy have shown that books can appeal to an audience brought up on television, an audience which understands the grammar of computers, which take drugs routinely, which enjoys popular music, fantasy games, football and Sudoku. These are the readers of the future, and I am glad, and humbled, to have been recognised as someone who has welcomed that future. I believe we writers owe an immense debt of gratitude to Richard and Judy for having shown the way - for so long off the radar - to the hearts and minds, and the wallets, of the people. But I ask you to remember the Russian saying, The moon does not heed the barking of dogs. Good night.

Justin Cartwright's latest novel, 'The Promise of Happiness' is out in paperback (Bloomsbury £7.99)

Comments