Suzi Feay: Hollinghurst speaks! Then goes quiet again

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The Independent Culture

"Hollinghurst!" "I can't believe it." "It's astonishing." "Well, I never..." Murmurs of amazement ripple round the Royal Horticultural Hall.

"Hollinghurst!" "I can't believe it." "It's astonishing." "Well, I never..." Murmurs of amazement ripple round the Royal Horticultural Hall. No, the Man Booker prize hasn't been announced yet, we're just watching the author interviews on a giant screen - and everyone's stunned by how posh Hol's voice is. Sometimes you get that goose-walking-over-your-grave feeling at a big literary party and look up and see those big, dark, Labrador eyes fixed mournfully on you, but no one's ever heard him speak before. It's not the only surprise of the night. Talking to two male journalists, I break off to say, "Look, that's Sarah Hall," as the shortlisted author, flower in hair à la Zadie Smith, shimmies past. I carry on chatting, only to realise that they've stopped listening and are staring at Hall's discreetly tattooed back with their jaws hanging open. "It's not, is it? She's gorgeous!" one of them gasps.

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The big BBC lie: "They'll be coming to do your make-up and hair in a moment." Next thing you know, the cameras are rolling, and Kirsty Wark looks like she's been daubed by Kevin Aucoin while I look - well, not like Sarah Hall, let's say. I've been yanked off my table to be miked up, so I hear the shock announcement from a tiny monitor while watching the soundman struggle with the slippery labial folds of Rowan Pelling's oyster satin. Chatting to La Belle Pelling, I note with admiration that her low-cut balcony top actually reveals her nipples if you're standing close enough: they look like two marrons glacés on a shelf. Way to go, Ro! We'll all miss her frocks, that's for sure. We troop on stage, and while jubilant bookmakers cartwheel in the background, have a half-deafened discussion. I was expecting a post-mortem along the lines of "What happened to Cloud Atlas?" but you sense that fickle media types are already moving on: Mitchell? David Mitchell...? Remind me? It's a cruel business. What does seem odd is that the shortlist divided into the Big Three, plus Hall, Achmat Dangor and Gerard Woodward, who were seen by virtually everybody as no-hopers from the start. Very good for their careers to have been on the shortlist, no doubt, but no one ever thought for a second that they had any chance of winning. Which is all right if you just want to wave a magic wand over an author, but perhaps not so great if you're meant to come up with the six finest novels of the year. A lone voice on my dinner table wanted Hall to win but was argued down in seconds on the grounds that The Electric Michelangelo just isn't very good.

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Back down on the floor, David Mitchell smiles as inscrutably as ever, with only his publishers allowing themselves to look a bit cheated. It's difficult to argue that Hollinghurst didn't deserve his win: The Line of Beauty is an excellent novel, moving and swishingly readable. It is basically an Eighties update of Brideshead Revisited though, and frightfully arch, with its namby-pamby narrator bleating on about music and Boulle furniture, whatever that is. Also, its satire of ludicrous pretension doesn't entirely acquit it of the self-same charge. So, on to the winner's after-show party, which turns out to be a quiet affair. Hollinghurst's gone silent again, those saucy eyes dancing merrily all over the place. Someone rushes up to me and says: "Thank you, thank you, thank you!" Do they think I'm Rowan Pelling? Unobtrusively, I check my marrons glacés, then realise my presence on the telly must have been misconstrued. Cloud Atlas will go down, with Burgess's Earthly Powers, as one of the best novels never to win the Booker. It looks forward, while The Line of Beauty looks back. What will David Mitchell do next? remains a burning question. What Alan Hollinghurst will do next seems less pressing. Explain what Boulle furniture is, presumably.