Booker Prize: Poor Beryl, always the bridesmaid

Booker Prize: Fifth disappointment for Bainbridge as 'Amsterdam' surprises the critics in 30th anniversary year

A HUGE sound-boom like a Damoclean dockside crane swung perilously over the heads of 450 of London's premier league literati at the Guildhall last night, as a reminder of what a media event the Booker Prize has become.

The classiest of literary awards is now in danger of losing its serious appeal as a spangled constellation of the nation's best writers, and becoming a straight battle of the nervous versus the telegenic under the hot lights.

We marvelled at the sight of the Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, wiping the last remnants of lemon curd tart from his lips as he hurried to the podium where Muriel Gray, the pert Scots media person, waited to interview him on Channel 4.

Touching his hands into fists, he was no match for the supercool Tim Waterstone, the empire-building bookseller who spoke to the cameras with the insouciance of a president on a local radio station. On table 32 some enterprising placement guru had seated William Hague, the well-known Conservative ladykiller, between two of the most glamorous women in the room, Lucy Heller of The Observer and Victoria Barnsley, the haughty chatelaine of Fourth Estate. Elsewhere Salman Rushdie, although his name didn't appear in the guest list, sat between Mariella Frostrup and his ex-landlady Liz Calder, the Bloomsbury publisher.

We ate mozzarella with pesto, followed by lamb chunks with red cabbage and filo parcels and, wondered about the outcome. Everybody knew Beryl Bainbridge must be getting it at last. The Booker jury historically does not award its lucrative prize as a favour, a bung, or a reward for long service; but even the steely-hearted cabal of Douglas Hurd, Valentine Cunningham, Nigella Lawson, Penelope Fitzgerald and Miriam Gross, could hardly ignore the brilliance of Beryl's new novel, set in the Crimean War. Besides, she'd purchased a new frock, brought her grandson Bertie along, and was drinking nothing stronger than mineral water. "I've been sitting beside Martyn Goff," confided Bernice Rubens, one of Beryl's biggest friends, "and he hasn't denied it". But the eminence gris of the judging panel was only teasing, as it turned out.

Lord Hurd went through the shortlist, praising slightly here, seeming to dispraise faintly there. Patrick McCabe's Breakfast on Pluto was "the strangest novel on the list" - (yes, and ...?); "Martin Booth's book was ... a totally straightforward novel," - (but was that good or bad?); Beryl's Master Georgie was "enigmatic ..." - (you mean he didn't understand it?). As for Magnus Mills, the Brixton bus driver, at every mention of whose name a ragged cheer fills the sacred halls of the literary world these days - well, Lord Hurd referred to him as Magnus Miles, possibly confusing him with the late inquisitor from television's Take Your Pick, so we knew he had no chance.

A gasp went up as Hurd announced that McEwan had won. A not entirely happy gasp, despite the excellence of Amsterdam, and its striking evocations of musical composition, Sixties fecklessness and fell-walking in the Lake District. Poor Beryl, you could hear them saying, poor darling, always the bridesmaid. Bainbridge has been a popular figure in literary circles for many years. Now she moves beyond this pretentious milieu into a spectacular future as Official National Treasure: the best Booker Laureate we never had.

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