Terrible year: no tantrums

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The Independent Online
One morning last January an oblong envelope stamped "private & confidential" arrived at the offices of Granta. The "private" was in blue ink and the "confidential" in red. The two colours and the ampersand suggested a correspondent with a screw loose, or an old-fashioned way of doing things.

The second was the correct guess. The letterhead announced an antiquarian bookseller, Sotheran's of Sackville Street: the letter, from the shop's owner, Martyn Goff, invited me to be a judge in this year's Booker Prize.

This is an odd business. Goff (who had no loose screws) is the prize's administrator and acts on behalf of its invisible management committee. For almost 30 years he has been sending out judicial invitations on the notepaper of a second-hand bookseller. It seems to work. I accepted at once, and not only because the fee was pounds 3,000. (What else then? Vanity, I suppose, and for "the experience".)

I won't mention the books. Far too many pieces by former judges have gone on about the dreadful job of reading them, as though they have just spent six months down the pit. In any case, you do not want to know about the books. You want to know about judicial splits, rows and tantrums, and about that virago who was chairing us, Carmen Callil.

Disappointment here, I'm afraid. Callil was sweet reason. The meetings were well-run. Opinions were firmly held and well-expressed, but no tempers were lost. From the publicity angle, and publicity is the reason for the Booker's success, this has been a terrible year. No shipwrecks, nobody drowned, nothing to laugh at all. Some wonderful books, though, and a shame that the short-list had to be confined to six.

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