At long last! A literary prize for the clubbable

The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold
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The Independent Online
EVERY year for the past quarter of a century, I have been involved in the judging of one literary prize or another. I like to think that the organisers of these prizes regard me as a man they can trust, a man who would never let his personal preferences interfere with the majority view.

But this is not to say that my time as a judge has been without incident. Far from it. You will remember that I was one of the panel of judges of the Booker Prize - the others being Miss (Msss!) Libby Purves, Mrs Edwina Currie, Sir Roy Strong, Lord Wyatt of Weevil, Mr Michael Barrymore, and, from the world of all-in wrestling, Mr Giant Haysticks - which pulled Keri Hulme's name out of the hat. Our choice met with hot-headed criticism from the "literary" crowd, but, up until now, my lips have remained sealed upon the subject. All that I am prepared to reveal about the unfortunate episode is that when the lady in question came up to the rostrum, pipe in hand, to accept her cheque, and I whispered "Best love to Alec - one of my dearest old friends, you know," she replied, "Alec who?" To which I replied, "You know - ALEC! Your dear papa! Lord Home, as he now is!" and she responded with a quizzical look, amounting almost to a sneer.

It emerged that her name was spelt H-U-L-M-E and not H-O-M-E, and that she was far from being the Hulme Sweet Hulme of popular legend (I jest!) Had I known that the author in question was a pipe-smoking Maori and not the proud daughter of one of our foremost Border families, I would never have recommended the jury to vote in her favour.

Ever since that regrettable incident, I have read the name of the author with the greatest care and, if possible, a good few pages of the book in question, before dishing out any prize.

Which brings me, in my deliciously whimsical way (!) to the topic to be tackled this week. I have been appointed to the illustrious jury of the Heywood Hill Literary Prize, a convivial new award of £10,000, no less, donated by my old friend and quaffing partner the Duke of Devonshire. The prospectus announces that the prize will be awarded "for a distinguished literary career" and for "a combination of style, wit and elegance. It will be open to writers, publishers, collectors, reviewers and editors . . . during the post-war period it would have been awarded at different times to P G Woodhouse, John Betjeman, David Cecil, Osbert Lancaster or Jock Murray". Capital! For me, this is just the sort of Literary Prize for which the civilised world has been waiting. And at last a decent award dinner unpopulated by The Great Unwashed! No more the glowering Glaswegian with his six-pack of Special Brew and "lounge suit", no more the thin- lipped crop-haired feminist with her ceaseless moaning about "rights" (dread word!), no more the bejeaned and bearded young novelist with his weak handshake and his sly smile, no more the Friend from the Commonwealth, with his horribly spare prose style. At long last a Literary Prize for that most neglected minority, the well-spoken, the clubbable and the well- to-do.

Our first committee meeting was held on Thursday at the Beefsteak over a splendid luncheon of game pt, steak and kidney pud, jam roly-poly and Welsh rarebit, with a pleasant main course and pud to follow. It was chaired by Yours Truly, ably assisted by Andrew Devonshire with Nicholas Soames, Willie Whitelaw, Jim Lees-Milne and our token hot-head Perry Worsthorne. Of course, literature was not mentioned over the meal, but we devoted a good 10 or 15 minutes to it during the second glass of port. "What about the young Duke of Westminster?" asked Jim Lees-Milne. "Never written a book," chipped in Andrew.

"How about that chap who's written all those things about fish?" asked Soames. "Lives in Devon."

"Ted Hughes?" ventured Perry. "That's the one," replied Soames. "Any good?" "Poet," said Perry, shaking his head. "And black as the ace of clubs, unless I'm very much mistaken," said Jim.

"What about a posthumous award to Shakespeare?" suggested Willie Whitelaw. "Frightfully clever. Did him at school." "A mite wordy," I ventured, "but didn't I read somewhere that the Queen Mother had once written something?"

Various other names - Quintin Hailsham, William Rees-Mogg, HRH Princess Margaret - were batted about, but we came to no firm conclusion. Personally, I rather think that Arnold, W would himself be a fitting candidate, but one must play these things by ear.