Martyn Goff: Secrets of the Booker king

Martyn Goff has run Britain's most prestigious literary prize for 34 years. As he prepares to step down, John Walsh hears all the gossip, scandal, rumours - and even the odd true story

Tuesday night at the Savile Club in London, and you couldn't move for literary luminaries. Academics (John Carey, Hermione Lee) and prize-winning novelists (Alan Hollinghurst, Beryl Bainbridge) fought for space with media glamourpusses (Simon Jenkins, Mariella Frostrup) and eminent publishers and agents (Matthew Evans, Peter Strauss) as they drank to celebrate a unique event. After 34 years, Martyn Goff is parting company with the Booker Prize.

It's like Caesar Augustus retiring from the Roman Empire. Indeed, with his brushed-forward silver hair and patrician manner, his huskily judicious voice, even the wooden orthopaedic seat he carries under his arm at dinners like an insignia of office (it's to keep his spine supple), Goff does a fair impression of imperial majesty. You might think him a frightful toff, were he not such terrific company. For three decades he's pulled off a remarkable feat, of maintaining the high reputation of the Booker as the world's top fiction prize, while giving it a sexy cachet as an award drenched in controversy and gossip. Almost from the start, Goff has been the Prize's overseer, quality-controller, protector and defender. He's organised the choice of chairs and judges, year after year, sat in on the deliberations from soup to nuts, clarified points of protocol, cut through impasses, fought against compromises, briefed the press and twinkled seraphically at the Booker Prize dinners. He's also famous for discreetly lunching with judges, to learn about the inner tensions of the group, and for dropping little stories of bookish dramas and vendettas in the ear of national newspaper diarists. At the Savile Club, speakers queued up to pay tribute to his skill as "leaking and lunching".

He is not, however, taking retirement. (He is, for heaven's sake, only 82.) He will continue as executive chairman of Henry Sotheran's, the renowned antiquarian booksellers off Piccadilly. And he's been signed up by Simon & Shuster to write his memoirs. This should cause a few Booker veterans fitful slumbers: Goff has seen the machinations of the creative and academic worlds at first hand, and isn't afraid to tell all.

So - had any writers struck him as especially dim, philistine or generally nasty? "I did find DBC Pierre odd, to say the least. So hard to arrange things with. His whole attitude on the night he won [with Vernon God Little in 2003] was 'What's all this about?' when he should have been damned glad to win enough money to pay the debt he owed to the old friend he defrauded."

Goff reserves his profoundest dislike for John Berger, whose novel G won in 1972, but who excoriated the Booker company in his acceptance speech and announced he was giving half the prize money to the Black Panthers. "Half the money!" snorted Goff . "If you think something's immoral, you surely give away all the money." He rejects the suggestion in Berger's speech that Booker plc sweated blacks in the West Indies to produce sugar, and argues that the Black Panthers were a busted flush by 1972. In 1999, to celebrate 30 years of the prize, Goff edited a volume of contributions - essays, poems or random thoughts - from all 30 past winners. "I had terrible trouble tracing Berger in the French Alps but I found him and explained what I wanted, how everyone was contributing. He said he'd have to think about it. I rang him a week later. He said, 'I was prepared to do it, but all my friends said that, after how badly Booker had behaved towards me, I shouldn't. So I won't." Goff seethes audibly.

A checklist reveals that yes, some Booker judges didn't read the books. "Norman St John Stevas didn't read everything, or possibly anything," he jokes. Rebecca Stephens, the Everest mountaineer, fell seriously behind with her reading but was buoyed up by daily dispatches of plot summaries from the chair John Carey. Worst year on record was 1994, when Rabbi Julia Neuberger threatened to resign if James Kelman's How Late It Was, How Late won the prize (it did) and the chair, John Bayley, proved an ineffectual chairman. "In the final, crucial rounds of judging, Alan Taylor [literary editor of The Scotsman] checked the votes cast and said, 'John, you've voted for a different book each time,' to which he replied, 'Well, I liked all three equally.'" Goff gave me a look he's made his own - of mild outrage, that any civilised person could be both so dim and so socially maladroit.

His memoirs won't be exclusively concerned with prizes, however, for his pre-Booker life was phenomenally mouvementé. Born in 1923, he's the son of a Russian fur dealer called Gulkov who came to London without a rouble in 1898, met Martyn's mother, a fellow expatriate, went into business and by the time Goff was born (the family name changed shortly after his birth) had established himself as "the largest manufacturer of fur coats in this country. He sold furs to Harrods and Liberty and everybody else." A living example of the Triumph of Capitalist Enterprise befalling refugees from Tsarist tyranny, the family lived in a big house in Hampstead with servants and a cook.

The fur dealer had a drawing-room of literary classics. Martyn remembers selecting a work by Dostoevsky and taking it upstairs to read. His father noticed the gap in the shelf and objected to his son's reading anything so grown-up (and so expensively bound). "I saw this as a challenge. I used to take out a book and rearrange the row so the gap was at the end where he couldn't see it."

His reading became prodigious and, at 19, he was offered a place at Oxford to read English - but the war was underway and he joined the RAF instead. He became wireless operator on Lancaster bombing missions and flew all over the Middle East. In the unlikely setting of a theatre of war, he had a brush with literary history. Stationed in Jordan (then Transjordan), he wrote a fan letter to Siegfried Sassoon, whose poetry and prose he admired, and received a reply. "Years later, I learnt from Max Egremont, Sassoon's biographer, that Sassoon had written to Maynard Keynes, saying 'I don't know if you knew, but I've had writer's block, and haven't written a word for two years. Now here's an aerogram from an unknown airman somewhere in the western desert, praising my work, and I've started writing again'." Goff beams.

After the war, at a loose end at 22, he was invited by a cousin for lunch at St Leonards-on-Sea. Strolling on the shore, he spotted a line of new buildings done up as shops but unoccupied. He enquired at the estate agents, was told the terms, "and said, 'I'll have that one, No 4 or 5. I want to open a bookshop.' The agents said, 'Don't you even want to inspect the premises?' I said no." His friends presumably wondered how he planned to run a shop with no stock, no retail experience, no obvious financial acumen and no acquaintance in St Leonards-on-Sea. It didn't bother Goff. He rented the place for a year, got a job for two months, working unpaid at Zwemmers in Charing Cross Road, to learn the daily grind of bookselling, and opened his first shop in 1946. Before long, he'd opened two more along the south coast. Rather an extreme reaction, some might think, to being denied the contents of his father's posh library when young.

He added to the stock on his shelves by writing novels himself. He's published eight over the years, of which three are explicitly homosexual in theme. The Plaster Fabric, the first of them, came out in 1957, when it was still possible to be thrown in jail and socially obliterated for being openly gay. "My distinguished, very non-gay publisher took me to lunch shortly before publication and said, 'You know, this book could land both of us in the Old Bailey. You're not worried?' I said no. He said, 'Good - then neither am I.'" Any lurking concern was laid to rest by "the most extraordinary piece of luck - John Betjeman was commissioned to review it for The Daily Telegraph, jumped the deadlines and was wildly enthusiastic. After that, the authorities could hardly condemn it."

Three years later, the Chatterley trial opened a new era of libertarian publishing, and when The Youngest Director was launched in 1961, the author was no longer haunted by the prospect of prison. "The plot concerned a chap who couldn't become a director of a company because he wasn't married. I must have got 150 letters from all over the country saying, 'You seem to know all about what's happened to me.'" It was a low-key examination of gay prejudice, it sold 6,000 copies and was cited by Angus Wilson as one of the books that changed the climate of opinion about gayness and made the Wolfenden report possible. It became an unexpected bestseller in Germany. It also brought him a fan letter from a blond Scandinavian student called Rubio, with whom Goff has lived for 36 years, in a house in Clapham crammed with 10,000 books and 107 paintings bought from Keith Vaughn, Graham Sutherland, John Minton and the Fifties Soho-Bohemian crowd.

At 82, he still goes into his chairman's office at Sotheran's every day and clearly delights in the honours that have come his way. He's met the Queen several times, the last time in November when picking up his CBE. "At the Palace, all the guests were milling in the Gallery and a voice said, 'Martyn!' I looked around and it was Richard Luce, Lord Chamberlain of the Queen's Household, with whom I used to work. We talked until he was called away. He runs the award ceremony, you see, and briefs the Queen about who everyone is. When I reached the Queen, she questioned me about lots of things. The others said afterwards, 'Why was she talking to you for so long?'" He smiled, delightedly. "I think she must have been told more than usual about me by Richard Luce."

For a grand vizier like Goff, there can be few things more blissful than the thought of the Queen chatting about you behind your back.

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