Summer must be over, because the Booker Prize season is upon us. In 10 days' time the shortlist for this year's award is announced. But before that, a limited edition book of essays is being published, which recounts some memorable behind-the-scenes moments in the history of the prize. The book, which is not for sale, but is being sent to every secondary school library in the country, is called The Man Booker Prize: 35 years of the best in contemporary fiction.
Forget the fact that 35 years is not a "real" anniversary; forget also the fact that the book - despite the title - doesn't actually contain any contemporary fiction. It does contain something much more diverting. The volume has some delightfully indiscreet thoughts on the prize from those who know most about it. Literary historians should make for their local school libraries.
True, there are some utterly discreet and proper insights too. Some come from the literary agent Peter Straus, who collects books connected with the prize. Despite the Booker's fame and reputation for boosting sales, some past shortlisted titles are remarkably hard to come by. According to Straus, T Wheeler's The Conjunction and Elizabeth Mavor's The Green Equinox are rarities; but even better known writers' work such as Penelope Lively's The Road to Lichfield and JL Carr's A Month in the Country are hard to find. Straus also discovered that John Fowles did not allow his publisher to enter his books for the contest, even though his publisher Tom Maschler had invented the prize, presumably hoping that authors of Fowles's calibre would win an award. John le Carré was another who did not want his books to be entered.
The publisher Caroline Michel discloses that many writers' agents now make it a stipulation, in contracts that are signed with publishers, that their clients' books are entered for the Booker Prize (or the Man Booker as it is now called). But when I saw this history, I turned immediately to the chapter that contained an interview with Martyn Goff, administrator of the contest since 1973. I know Goff to be a dapper dresser, a formidable luncher and a purveyor of first-rate literary gossip. We will have to wait for the movie to capture his expensive tastes in dress and food; but I hoped that in this new history he might be suitably indiscreet about the Booker - and I was not disappointed.
I relish his tale of Norman St John-Stevas who chaired the judging panel the year that the New Zealander Keri Hulme won with The Bone People. The former Conservative cabinet minister told Goff there was "no way he was going to read that rubbish". He relented when he saw that the rest of the judges liked it, though he couldn't resist remarking to Goff that it was "highfalutin and pretentious".
What a joy sitting in on the judging panels over the years must have been. There was the year when Kingsley Amis's Ending Up was eligible for the prize, and Elizabeth Jane Howard, married to Amis at the time, was one of the judges. Ms Howard volunteered to leave the room because of the conflict of interest, but as she left she announced to Antonia Byatt, who was chairing the judges, and to the rest of the panel: "I had better leave the room; it is easily Kingsley's best book. It is a masterpiece. I'm parti pris here, but I mustn't influence you." She didn't. It lost.
Sometimes one wishes that Goff would reveal a little more. He says: "The year that Salman Rushdie didn't win with Shame, he was extremely rude to me as he came out of the men's room." Exact words, please, Martyn. These moments need to be properly recorded for the benefit of literary scholars.
Best of all, I like Goff's tale of the inimitable Fay Weldon, who chaired the Booker panel in 1983. She had the casting vote between two books and couldn't decide. Goff told her: "We must have a decision." Weldon replied: "But Martyn, you don't seem to understand that at home I never make decisions; my husband makes them all."
The only certainty about the Booker is that 20 years on, Goff will never hear a member of the judging panel for the prize say that again.
¿ "Best of" lists seem to be never ending but I have to hand it to the singer/songwriter Richard Thompson for giving a new twist to a "best pop songs ever" list. Thompson was asked by Playboy magazine to submit a list, in late 1999, of the 10 greatest songs of the Millennium. Thompson began his list in 1250. I suppose, if you do ask an ex-Fairport Convention man, he is going to be true to his folk-music heritage.
Thompson has now made an album of his selections, and is performing "A Thousand Years of Popular Music" at Sadlers Wells in London later this month. The first song he chooses from the Millennium's best is from the 13th century. It is "Sumer is Icumen In'' and is described as "the best known round in the English language". The most recent song is not the best known round in the English language. It is "Oops! ... I Did It Again" by Britney Spears. This man is nothing if not eclectic in his taste.
¿ John Lennon's "Imagine" certainly has a claim to be among the great songs of the Millennium. In this column last year I noted with surprise that Yoko Ono, in presenting a Top of the Pops tribute to John Lennon, had claimed co-authorship of the song. I see that this week it has suddenly become news, with Ms Ono's identical claim on a new television programme being picked up by the press. My reaction remains the same - surprise. But if Ms Ono says that she co-wrote the song, I do, of course, believe her. I would just be curious to see if there is any other song in her oeuvre which bears any resemblance to "Imagine".Reuse content