On the morning of Booker Day, when the literary prize for best novel of the year is presented, the six writers shortlisted attend a photo session at that unique bookshop, Hatchards in Picadilly. England has lots of bookshops, most of them chainstores staffed by children with university degrees who get paid a pittance. Hatchards is run by the sublime Roger Katz, Karen, Briggita, Stephen and Martin. They all love books and it's not often a browser gets out without making a purchase. First we had sandwiches and wine, and then the press came. It's not like the old days when an apologetic chap with a Brownie shyly snapped one in a corner.
That night, in my ball gown and escorted by my grandson Bertie, aged l5, resplendent in Moss Bros's best, and my publisher Robin Baird-Smith, I arrived at the Guildhall. What a building! What history! What a paradise for the deathwatch beetle.
I enjoyed the occasion and remember it only because I drank water, seeing as I was supposed, indeed tipped, to win. I wanted to be sober when I made my gracious speech of thanks for the pounds 21,000 cheque. Consequently, when lovely Ian McEwan won, I didn't feel distressed. Years ago, that great man, Peter Ackroyd, took me to dinner at Ian's. I was just up from the provinces - we all were - and it's my fantasy that Ian put all the courses, avocado - no, we'd never heard of those - potatoes etc and pudding on the same plate.
Who says authors are envious and ungracious to each other? Martin Booth, also shortlisted, sought me out afterwards and shook my hand. Julian Barnes showed me his betting slip from the bookies William Hill, which I've since framed. He'd put pounds 40 on me.
The only thing that I was a bit miffed about was the interpretation in the papers of my reaction when two close women friends cried at my losing out. I rose and hugged them, at which it was reported that I was "visibly upset". Nobody over the age of 60 and without a drink in them is ever upset, at least not over a mere book. Too much has gone before, of far more import.
The next day was a joy, also curiously tear-jerking, being the induction, gowning, or whatever it's called, of Melvyn Bragg into the House of Lords. Another fantastic building, even if the original was burnt down in Victorian times, and one positively redolent of history and tradition. Twenty or more friends gathered for lunch to celebrate the occasion, with the indomitable Barbara Castle placed next to Mel's mum. Both are fine examples of intelligent women. I was going to add that they're pretty as well, but these days you're not supposed to say that sort of thing.
Mel made a luncheon speech playing down his worthiness for being elevated and explaining that the chap sitting next to him with the nice legs was named Garter. Garter has a colleague called Carter and another by the name of Lion, neither of whom was with us. Melvyn also begged us not to cause a disturbance in the chamber. Some of us did think of pinching a few "Ban Fox-Hunting" banners from the protesters out in the square, but it was raining. Tristan Powell countered Mel's speech with subtlety and sincerity. Tristan is a shy man, yet he put into words what we all felt. Forget all those press reports about Bragg being vain, rude, etc; as Tristan rightly said, he follows in a direct line from Huw Wheldon who cared deeply about the arts.
Led out into the lobby by Garter of the lovely legs, we waited for Black Rod to precede the Lord Chancellor into the chamber. Someone whispered that a few weeks back an onlooker recognised a Lord called Neill and shouted out his name, at which everyone sank to their knees.
Finally we were marched upstairs to the gallery overlooking the chamber, all except young Tom, son of Mel and Cate, who was allowed to sit on the steps of the golden throne. I didn't actually notice this because a dead ringer for Charles Laughton in Mutiny on the Bounty arrived and promptly dozed off on the front bench.
Afterwards we had tea and cakes. In the corridor outside there was an astounding painting of horsemen bringing in the pudding course. Alas, not even a donkey cantered in with the custard tarts.
I came home to find flowers, cards, ciggies and a bottle of whisky waiting for me. I don't remember much after that.Reuse content