Around the infinity pool in a five star-hotel in Mauritius, 26 people are lolling, or lunching, or posing for photos or contemplating a swim. They include a Hollywood film star, a lantern-jawed New Zealand chef, a London literary agent, a glamorous lesbian couple, a burly TV anchorman, a seven-foot Texan ex-basketballer, a rock photographer, a pair of honeymooning northerners, a Mauritian lecturer in French, a Yorkshire-born creative writing professor, and a tiny children's author who has sold 20 million books all over the world. What are they doing here? What bizarre multi-media extravaganza can have rounded up such a disparate gang and brought them to this hedonists' retreat in the Indian ocean?
Rather surprisingly, it's a book prize - the Prince Maurice Prize, sponsored by the eponymously titled hotel where we are staying, and set up in 2002 to reward "literary love stories". It is awarded in alternate years to books in English and French. This year it's English. The judges considered submissions from every British publisher before winnowing them down to a longlist of 12 (which included Zadie Smith's On Beauty and Julian Fellowes's Snobs) and a final shortlist of three - Sleep With Me by Joanna Briscoe, Becoming Strangers by Louise Dean and Either Side of Winter by Benjamin Markovits. The winner gets a trophy and a free two-week stay in this beautiful hotel, where guests are pampered to a ludicrous degree. (I liked the sunglasses-wiping service.)
Chairing the judges is Tim Lott, a novelist and former TV producer, the author of the prizewinning The Scent of Dried Roses and White City Blue, and either a talented, witty and virile leader of men or else a jammy bastard, depending on whether you think you're likely to join him in Mauritius one day. Lott was approached by the prize's founders at the start and in (he confesses) the luckiest break of his career, made its life president. Initially it was to be a prize for love stories but Lott, aware of the fatal Mills & Boon associations, persuaded the organisers to celebrate love in a less drippy, more literary way. So the prize is now for "writers of the heart" and every two years the British literary world looks on in envy as seven judges from the UK are chosen to join three resident Mauritian judges. They fly out with the shortlist and their partners (and the prize's patron, the actress Tilda Swinton) for a week in paradise that culminates in a banquet prepared by Kiwi superchef Peter Gordon
All week, from Monday, the chosen score arrived in dribs and drabs, festooned with luggage and labels, like evacuees after their 12-hour flight, blinked at the tropical afternoon light, found their vast hotel suites, shed their clothes and hit the sunbeds. I arrived on Thursday with Blake and Cathy Morrison, Mark Lawson, Joanna Briscoe and her partner Charlotte Mendelson (whose Daughters of Jerusalem was shortlisted two years ago - the prize seems to have been designed to showcase the works of London's top gay literary couple).
That evening, everyone milled around the L'Archipel restaurant, where the ocean creeps across the sand behind you like a discreet waiter. The newest arrivals brought news from home, about Big Brother and Wayne Rooney. Mark Lawson, the BBC arts broadcaster and master conspiracy theorist, started a rumour that the Arsenal wunderkind Theo Walcott is the grandson of Derek Walcott, the Caribbean poet. Connoisseurs of the dynamics of judge-contestant relationships wondered if it was wise for Ben Markovits (contestant) to beat Tim Lott (judge) 6-0, 6-3 at tennis that morning. Mr Markovits, an unfeasibly tall Texan with melting brown eyes, is a serious writer with a passion for, of all people, the Yank-hating Evelyn Waugh. He watches with polite interest the flood of media point-scoring and bitchery that foams around him.
Nearby, several lady writers, wives and hangers-on discussed Tilda Swinton. "She's soooo beautiful," breathed one, "I love that hauteur of hers, the way she tilts her chin." The conversation turned to Hollywood stereotypes and British actresses who are both clever and, er, lust-inducing, but ground to a halt after naming Kate W and Helena B-H." "You don't think," mused a hack, "some people call her Tilta Chinton by mistake?"
"I was amazed to be invited here," confides Louise Dean, one of the shortlist. "I didn't think this sort of thing happened to writers." The picture on Ms Dean's book jacket shows a serious-looking dame with a shiny forehead and a flat half-smile. The Louise at the table is a giggly blonde dreamboat, who swears like a Folkestone docker and extends her long, slender body like an Anglepoise lamp. "Writers are a scrofulous bunch," she said. "They're not used to luxury. They should make this a reality TV show, where they make us carry boulders around and cop off with each other."
Next morning, the nine judges and three shortlistees are shepherded to the beach, allegedly to be photographed in aquatic briefs and bathing frocks, a not-entirely-blissful prospect that turns out to be untrue. At lunch, the conversation turns to the genre of the books on the shortlist. "If they've a common theme," said Matt Thorne, the young novelist who started the short-lived but provocative New Puritans group. "It's Relationships Under Threat, from infidelity, boredom, disillusion. In that respect, it's dealing with the opposite of love." "But surely," said Jacqueline Wilson, the children's laureate and, judged by library lending, the nation's most popular author, "every novel that's published is to some extent about relationships under threat."
Perhaps concerned that the raison d'être of the prize is likewise threatened, they discuss various indignities they're been forced to undergo to help sales of their books. "I once turned down doing Celebrity Wife Swap with Jade Goody," admits Matt Thorne ruefully. "They offered me £10,000 and my wife was quite up for it."
"I was invited to ghost the autobiography of Jean Shrimpton," said Jacqueline with a sigh. "But when the publishers interviewed me, they asked, 'Wouldn't you have a jealousy problem?'" She went off into her fantastic, punk-granny giggle.
In the afternoon, we drove en charabanc to Mauritius University, where bigwigs of the English Studies department were waiting to welcome the Talent. The MC, Farhad Khoyratty, recalled that his first experience of love was in London at 18, at Liverpool Street market, where every lady stallholder gave him change with the words "'Ere you go, love." The head of English, Dr Satish Mahadeo, said flatteringly that, "everyone recognises the value of an English degree", and it was a guarantee of articulate thought and elegant style - a sentiment to which all the writers in the room silently appended the words, "Yeah, right."
The star of the show was the University vice-chancellor, Professor Indur Fagoonee, a tiny, rubicund, brown-suited martinet and love-sceptic. "I am a scientist," he said testily, "I never read these novels," implying that fiction was a recent, trivial invention. Instead, he treated us to 20 minutes of sage wisdom on love, sex and related issues. "A man must love his wife," he said, "because she's the mother of your children and you must keep her happy." But, he continued, when we marry a woman, even as we are dancing with her at the reception, is there not another woman we're already eyeing up? After counselling his students "to share in love anew - but not to the level of sensuality", he left the stage and hurried away. "I'm sorry the vice-chancellor's gone," said Tim Lott, taking the microphone. "I was going to wish him good luck with his marriage."
During the readings from the shortlisted books, a tiny cultural problem became apparent. Tim Lott congratulated Joanna Briscoe on her steamingly hot love scenes (though the extract she read was demure and touching.) Louise Dean read from a work-in-progress that contained a swaggering reference to anal sex. Then Ben Markovitz, looming over the lectern like an M4 streetlamp, read a passage about a professor's passion for a girl student, and when the words "...his thickening penis..." hit the air, two local women walked out in protest. Whoops. Was this an awful precedent? Questions from the floor suggested a culture of, if not repression, then willed self-restraint. Would the prize become compromised by the rules of Mauritian bad taste?
Well no, actually. Next day, the judges went into conclave in a hotel function room, leaving the aspirational novelists to lie by the pool, tantalised beyond endurance. I chatted to Joanna and Charlotte. The latter wondered if Louise would win because her novel is set on a holiday island. I suggested that, if Ben won, it would highlight the prize's translatlantic reach. "For heaven's sake," said Joanna. "What does it matter? Being here is the reward."
At 7pm we climbed into our glad-rags and crowded into the Laguna Bar where the Prize evening was in full swing. I couldn't say whether le tout Mauritius was there, but the President and the prime minister were, and that was a start. Tilda Swinton was tall and regal in a complicated gold gown and a gardenia pinned, Zadie Smith-style, in her swept-back hair. Mauritian TV targeted ambassadors, sugar barons, ministers and their star home-grown novelist Carl de Souza
Speeches broke out. Tim Lott, a seigneurial figure in his sand suit and goatee beard, said that it was "the most glamorous of literary prizes, but that works against it in Britain, where the work ethic dictates that if you enjoy something, it's bad". Tilda Swinton then embarked on a soliloquy about love and its expression in art: "It's exposing and personal, it nails your colours to the mast, it's your message in a bottle."
The PM congratulated everyone and dilated on the trade-off between his home and "the great cultures of civilisation". To display how politicians can learn from literature, he said he'd found the title for his autobiography, "Love Built the Taj Mahal", in a book by Jill Tweedie that he'd bought 25 years ago. As we silently wondered whether this was the oddest-ever title for a political memoir, Lott and Swinton returned to announce the winner: it was Louise Dean for the "honesty and human-heartedness" of Becoming Strangers.
The hotel bar erupted. We could have been in Las Vegas. You could say Ms Dean rose to the occasion. In her long, spider-patterned silk frock, she was transformed under the hot lights into an instant star, a flash-popping vision of perfect teeth, hair, bright eyes and décolletage. The literary world has found its Charlize Theron.
We dined on squash-and-ginger soup, Bourgeois fish and Tasmanian lamb, courtesy of Peter Gordon's merry men, and all the silver-fork grandeur, the napery and truffles, the sumptuous opulence of it all wouldn't have disgraced a Hollywood film launch. I fear the organisers of the Prince Maurice Prize have set the bar for literary prizes a little high. After this, it's not going to be easy going back to cheese straws and tepid Orvieto in the Guildhall.Reuse content