W H Smith and Penguin bravely invited members of the book-buying public to help Esther Rantzen and P D James judge the "Great Read of the Century". One of the panel had never head of Patrick Suskind ("It was a great surprise to me that I enjoyed Perfume so much") and another was apparently a newcomer to The Catcher in the Rye. Animal Farm was the eventual winner, with Donna Tartt, rather surprisingly, the only female shortlister.
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A wallchart of past winners, judges, shortlists and panels, kindly sent to us by organisers of the Booker Prize, makes fascinating reading. In 1969 Rebecca West, Stephen Spender and Frank Kermode were on the panel and Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark and Nicholas Mosley on the shortlist. Sir Alfred Ayer chaired the year that Murdoch won with The Sea, the Sea (1978), fighting off Bernice Rubens, Jane Gardam, Penelope Fitzgerald, Kingsley Amis and Andre Brink. See, it wasn't always the post-colonial book prize with a token woman who never wins! How wonderfully readable these old lists are: 1980 alone has Golding, Burgess, Desai, Julia O'Faolain, J L Carr, Barry Unsworth and Alice Munro. So when did it all start to go so terribly pear-shaped? (This year, remember, that great literary lion George Walden MP is judging.) Was it 1985 when Joanna Lumley helped Norman St John-Stevas anoint the tediously worthy Keri Hulme? Salman Rushdie, 1981's winner, for sowing the seed of the idea that the prize should be determinedly multi-cultural? The paradox is, of course, that the more down-market and/or controversial the panel, the more obscure and worthy the winners seem to get.