People: Their honour, his Nibbies

FROM Golden Globes and Oscars to the Evening Standard this and The South Bank Show that, arts awards are flying around like cricket balls in the West Indies. For some reason that I've never fully understood, I'm still waiting to hear the words, "And the winner is ... Rex Fontaine", but that doesn't stop me lapping up every ceremony going, and lounge-lizarding my way round the best hotels in the confident hope of seeing Melvyn Bragg in a tux.

I am obviously not alone. Self-congratulation is now big business, and if you want proof you need look no further than Fred Newman, a 65-year- old one-time Daily Sketch feature writer who is the unlikely inspiration behind a set of awards that, in only eight years, has got the book world in a state of high excitement.

The seventh nearly annual British Book Awards - known as Nibbies because the trophies come in the form of giant pen-nibs - takes place this week at the Hilton in London, where some 700 publishing people and authors will eat, drink, gossip and pretend not to be disappointed if they don't win anything.

Mr Newman founded the Nibbies as an alternative to literary prizes such as the Booker and the Whitbread. Books and writers win Nibbies, of course, but there are also numerous other categories of award, including marketing, publicity, dust-jacket design, and the prize that really gets the Snipcock and Tweed brigade going - for Publisher of the Year. "The Oscars of the book world" is the somewhat grandiose claim Mr Newman makes for the Nibbies, but to the extent that they recognise that a successful title is not just down to its author, it's a perfectly valid one.

"My instinct was that books were just as much a part of the entertainment industry as film and music," Mr Newman told me last week when I met him in his office round the corner from the British Museum. "They're something people want to be in on, and that's true whether you're talking about Joe Bloggs up north or a Kensington dinner party."

Mr Newman was an Oxford contemporary of Michael Heseltine and Jeremy Isaacs, and edited Cherwell. A career in Fleet Street was followed by a spell in PR before, in the late Seventies, he founded Publishing News, a trade magazine for the book business. That gave him the base from which to launch the Nibbies.

To begin with, some publishers were rather disdainful of the awards, and the intellectual snobs' prejudices were confirmed when the likes of Andrew Morton started picking up prizes. "There was somewhat muted applause the year he won," Mr Newman said. "He wasn't an author with a track record."

The award may have left nobody in any doubt that the Nibbies' heart lay with commercial rather than artistic successes, but then publishing itself was heading in that direction too. Production and marketing have become much more sophisticated and hard-headed, and rewarding the talent and effort expended in those areas are a lot of what the Nibbies are about.

"You still hear people in publishing groaning when the Nibbies come round each year," one PR told me, "but that fact is that if you win Publisher of the Year it's a big thing." That's mainly because votes are cast by a 300-strong "academy" of people in the book business, and recognition by a fellow-pro is the best recognition of all. And with a past-winners list that includes Alan Bennett, Salman Rushdie, Bill Bryson and Minette Walters, the Nibbies' credibility is assured.

"My only grouse is that we still don't get on the telly," Mr Newman said. "The Booker makes bloody awful TV, but when you've got Ned Sherrin hosting the awards and people like Michael Palin taking part you'd think someone would see the potential."

And what about Fred Newman's taste in literature? "It's quite commercial, but I think quite catholic." He mentions Michael Connolly, an American crime writer, and Graham Swift. "I like a good book. By which I mean a beginning, a middle and an end. I'm not into obscurity." Little danger of that with the Nibbies in full cry.

THIS IS a tough time to be avant-garde. I mean, now that Damien Hirst and his cronies have conquered the citadel that is the Royal Academy, what impact can those travelling in their slipstream hope to have? Something called Spore - a collective of six artists and designers - is clearly undeterred, and I feel I would not be doing my duty if I failed to pass on to you news of their latest exhibition, White Noise - described in a press release as "a group collaboration on an installation created to complement the couture collection by Simon Thorogood".

The installation "addresses issues concerning generative systems and chance procedure in musical composition fused with an aesthetic of primitive computer graphics". It "consists of 40 vintage SE30s and Apple Mac Classics; machines dismissed by an insatiable digital industry as techno-junk. Spore mobilises the slow-processing speeds, low resolution and minimal memory to their advantage, each machine has been programmed in the 'C' language to weave binary threds and random texts that cycle simultaneously though slightly out of synch ..."

I feel slightly out of synch myself.

A baby formally known as Jake

AND how about this, from the Births column of Wednesday's issue of the Times:

"VINE - Jake Anthony David was born at 1.49pm on Friday, January 23rd (Aquarius) in Pembury Hospital, Kent, to the sound of The Artist Formerly Known as Prince. His parents Rebecca Mary and Robert Charles Vine are rather proud. Both the Vine and the Carr grandparents are delighted, as are his Auntie Amanda and Uncles Peter and Martin and his cousins."

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