Booker: the drama, the tension, the rows and . . . drugs

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WHEN I go to London for the occasional flying visit (a strange name to give to such a painfully slow trip) I tend to recuperate from the lack of breakfast by sliding into a small establishment in Soho which sells croissants and coffee and other Continental items round the clock - an all-day non-British breakfast, you might say - and administer life-giving caffeine to my shattered body.

The place is normally empty at that early hour except for a few all-night revellers who have forgotten to go home, so I very seldom meet anyone I know, but when I dropped in the other morning and settled down with a double helping of espresso coffee and a copy of a paper which, restfully, never has any news in it, I was surprised to hear a familiar groan from the next table.

'Adrian]' I cried in surprise. Slumped in the shadows, was the form of the doyen of British public relations men, my old mate Adrian Wardour-Street.

'Oh God, is it time to get up already?' he groaned.

'You are up,' I said. 'It's daytime. What's the problem?'

The problem, it turned out, was the biggest Adrian had ever encountered. He had had difficult clients in the past - who can ever forget the time he had to brighten up the Mafia's image? - but when he told me his latest client even I had to blanch.

'I have been hired to publicise the Booker,' he told me. 'They want me to make it interesting.'

His lip trembled. He stared gloomily into space. Was that a tear I saw forming at one corner of one eye?

'Time for a drink, I think,' he said. 'Care to join me in a brandy?'

'For God's sake, Adrian, it's only 10.30am,' I said. 'There must be ways of publicising the Booker without taking to the bottle.'

'Name some.'

I thought about it. 'Have the winner refuse the prize.'

'Done that,' he said. 'John Berger. Years ago. Masses of publicity. Can't do it again.'

'Have judges make fools of themselves.'

'Done that. Remember the year we got Richard Cobb, who was chairman of the judges, to admit in public that he had never read Proust?'

'How about getting Catherine Cookson to win?'

'We're not that desperate.'

'Well, as a joke, then.'

'The Booker Prize does not have a sense of humour,' said Adrian gloomily. 'They all take novels terribly seriously down in Bookerland. You can tell, from the way they talk about the 'art of fiction' instead of 'the job of novel-writing'.'

'I thought public relations was the art of fiction,' I said.

'Too bloody right,' Adrian replied. 'I can think up 10 good stories in half the time it takes these blokes to think of a title. But when I offer them a good story, they say, 'Adrian, we want publicity but we don't want anything made up.' So I find myself pushing out stories with ghastly titles like Is the Booker Prize good for the British novel?'

'I know,' I said. 'I saw it in the Sunday papers.'

'Did you read it?'

'No,' I said. 'I couldn't care less about the relationship between the Booker and the novel.'

'I feel the same,' he said. 'So, what story would you read about the Booker prize?'

'One in which two of the judges were having a red-hot affair and had agreed to act in cahoots to push one of the novels.'

'So would I, but I don't think I can arrange that.'

'I'd turn to a story headed, Stop Telephoning Me Round The Clock] Says Booker Chairman To Top Novelist.'

'Overtones of royalty?' said Adrian. Possible . . .'

'And I'd turn like a shot to a story headed Booker Novelist in Drugs Test Scandal.'

There was no answer. For a moment I thought Adrian had gone to sleep. Then he spoke.

'You've got it. By Jove, I believe you've got it. Drugs] Why didn't I . . ? Booker Front Runner Refuses Drug Test. It Was Just a Hay Fever Cure, Claims Novelist. I Only Took Steroids To Give Me Strength To Handle New Word Processor, says Lady Novelist . . . Brilliant . . .'

'Of course, I don't think it's actually against the rules to take drugs while writing novels . . .'

I was talking to thin air. Adrian was already on the cafe's phone, talking to a newspaper: 'Yes, drugs . . . Serious scandal . . . mustn't let a word out . . . Absolute dynamite . . .'