Obituary: Sir Michael Caine

IN AN unlikely liaison, the three worlds of Michael Caine were never far apart. Agro-business (a corporate buzzword he hated), the continent of Africa in all its manifestations, and the Booker Prize for Fiction were his life.

Even in retirement from 1993 his tall, gangling figure, a cigarette rarely far from lips or fingers, was a familiar landmark at the Booker Prize's annual dinner at Guildhall in London. For almost two decades, while at the helm of the prize's progenitor, Booker plc, he had presided over its development into the world's foremost fiction prize. At each year's dinner Caine would rise and make a speech. Some chairmen, with a stammer as bad as Caine's, would have asked a fellow director to deputise. Caine, however, persevered year after year, to the enormous admiration of his audience.

In 1969 founding a literary prize seemed an unlikely venture for a public company that as a colonial business at one time accounted for around 35 per cent of the gross domestic product of what was British Guiana (now Guyana). But in the early 1960s the company, in the process of re-inventing itself as a UK-based conglomerate in food, engineering and the marketing of rum, took advantage of a loop- hole in UK tax law also to invest in authors' copyrights, beginning with Ian Fleming (then at the height of his fame as the creator of James Bond) and at one time boasting a portfolio that included Harold Pinter, Dennis Wheatley, John Mortimer, Georgette Heyer and Agatha Christie.

Although after Bedales and Oxford, where he read Modern History at Lincoln College, and a postgraduate year at George Washington University in the United States, Michael Caine chose a business career at Booker, at heart he was an intellectual. A Booker director from 1964, 12 years after he joined, he totally approved of the notion that had been put to the Booker board, that Britain deserved a literary prize as prestigious and as influential as the French Prix Goncourt. With Booker making a substantial return from its authors' division, might it not return a little of its profit by way of sponsorship?

If he was disappointed that in its early years the "Booker" failed to take off in public perception he never lost heart. Some ugly publicity in 1972 when that year's winner, John Berger, not only accused Booker of exploiting colonial labour in the West Indies, but chose to give half his pounds 5,000 prize money to the Black Panther movement, did not prevent Caine (by now Booker's chief executive) from renewing the company's sponsorship after its initial seven years, even though there were fellow Booker directors who thought the investment was not doing the firm any good.

Caine's faith was soon to be fully justified. In 1980 the Booker at last made front-page news when it was portrayed as a battle royal between two literary heavyweights on the shortlist, William Golding and Anthony Burgess. After that there was no looking back. Caine watched with pride as the prize finally achieved its original aim of recognising artistic achievement while encouraging wider readership of the best in literary fiction.

The prize also gained Booker a level of corporate publicity that rapidly became the envy of its rivals, although Caine never encouraged Booker to cash in on the column inches. Some managers would have used such heightened awareness to develop not just the company's businesses, but in particular to market the Booker name. Caine preferred to see sponsorship fulfilling the vision of his first boss, Jock Campbell, that corporations have wider responsibilities than the pursuit alone of profit.

In 1992, with the support of the British Council, Caine gave the Booker imprimatur to a Russian novel prize. Commercially he could justify this expansion by citing Booker's business interests in the country, but he also confessed a lifelong admiration for Dostoevsky, Pushkin and Gogol. One felt that he hoped that a Russian Booker might find a late-20th-century equivalent.

On his retirement Caine only handed over the chairmanship of the prize management committee with some reluctance. It was a fiefdom that he had ruled as a benevolent autocrat. At each meeting he would listen to the views of committee members on how the prize should be conducted, but invariably his own judgements prevailed. And with the standing of the Booker Prize as high today as it has ever been, who's to deny that more often than not he got it right.

Michael Harris Caine, businessman: born Hong Kong 17 June 1927; director, Booker Bros, McConnell & Co (later Booker plc) 1964-93, vice-chairman 1973-79, chief executive 1975-84, chairman 1979-93; Kt 1988; President, Royal African Society 1996-99; married 1952 Janice Mercer (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1987), 1987 Emma Nicholson (created 1997 Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne); died London 20 March 1999.