Tales of the City: A bad case of pre-award tension

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The Independent Online

I walked into Charing Cross Station on Monday with a jaunty swing in my step. Had I possessed a cane, I'd have twirled it.

I walked into Charing Cross Station on Monday with a jaunty swing in my step. Had I possessed a cane, I'd have twirled it. Were I able to carry a tune, I'd have whistled something from Oklahoma!. At the ticket office, I bought an overnight return to Folkestone, and only just stopped myself asking, "Is there a special coach for Shortlisted Authors?". At the baguette stand, it took huge reserves of self-control to freeze on my tongue the words, "Just a small one, thanks - I've got a big prize-giving dinner tonight, for which I am in fact on the shortlist, and I want to leave some room for the rib of beef..."

I've never been on a shortlist before, you see, let alone won anything. No, that's not strictly true. When I was six, I won a small plastic aeroplane in a shop in County Wexford because I'd fortuitously selected the only blue gobstopper from a jar full of wrapped sweeties. It seemed an omen. I thought I must be destined for a life of brilliant luck, smiling fortune, success at chemin de fer, wodges of £10 notes at Leopardstown Races... But I was wrong. Until now.

Somehow, my book about the movies in your life, Are You Talking to Me?, had been shortlisted for the Saga prize, a book award of recent provenance but awesome prestige. It's awarded for an amusing book, fiction or non-, by someone of 50 and over. They give you a cheque for £1,000, and wave before you the prospect of 20 grand for the ultimate winner. The prize's full title is the Saga Award for Wit, so you feel, for a week or so, that you're Stephen Fry and Jeremy Hardy rolled together, horrifying though that visual image may be.

Hence the spring in my step. I was off, tra-la-la, to be awarded pots of money in sunny Folkestone- sur- Mer, and a lifetime of being lionised as a comic genius lay before me. On the train to the coast, I wrote my acceptance speech, full of waspish little stories about my rivals - Simon Gray the playwright, Julian Fellowes the TV actor who wrote Gosford Park, the novelists Laurie Graham and Deborah Moggach, and two biographers, about whom I knew little. Were they in with a chance? Biographers didn't win prizes for wit, did they? They were just lucky if they happened on a subject who was a source of wit. And Simon Gray's book was surely just a lot of curmudgeonly grousing about having to give up fags. That would never win, would it? So I went on, grinding inwardly about my chances of winning, disobligingly consigning my opponents to an early death with boiling oil in it...

The award ceremony was held at the Saga Pavilion, a crazy futuristic structure like the advanced-technology tent at a Scandinavian trade fair. Inside, an audience of eager local burghers looked expectantly at every new arrival, in case he or she turned out to be Lord Kilwillie from the BBC's Monarch of the Glen. Behind the stage, there was a busy VIP area where waiters were swanning about and a civic bigwig wore a mayoral chain, that lay almost flat upon the cushion of his straining corporation.

The only hated rival I could see was the novelist Deborah Moggach, a beautiful jabiru stork in fishnet tights. We discussed the shortlistees who weren't coming. Wasn't there some Folkestone by-law that said that authors are debarred from winning prizes if they can't be arsed to turn up? That would knock Fellowes, Graham and Gray out of the running, and good riddance. And wasn't it true that Fellowes's novel, Snobs, was written years before Gosford Park and long before he'd turned 50, so he didn't really qualify anyway? Greed was turning me into a terrible bitch.

Then a stranger appeared beside us, short, portly and smiling: it was Christopher Robbins, author of The Empress of Ireland, a charming, funny memoir about a gay Irish film director called Brian Desmond Hurst. We circled around each other somewhat warily, making I've-read-your-book/ I-haven't-read-yours-either noises. I introduced him:

"This is, er, Christopher, who has written about a completely unknown and forgotten movie director who made, er, that film about Hans Christian Andersen..."

"Actually, no, " said Robbins, shortly. "He made A Christmas Carol. I thought that you were supposed to be a movie buff..."

I met another hated rival, David McKie, whose life of a Victorian scoundrel, the titular Jabez, got annoyingly good reviews from the likes of Francis Wheen. McKie was kindly disposed and nervous, and discussed his next book, about British bus journeys, with enthusiasm. Inside me, the same nasty competitive virus I'd felt earlier put out a few more spores. "It's been done, hasn't it?" I said. "At least, I remember a book that traced the No 66 bus journey as if it was Route 66 in America..." And so I went on, trying to undermine my opponents, trump their stories, and show off, as if auditioning for some Nasty Piece of Work award.

By the time we took our places for the presentation, I was exhausted with pretending to be appreciative of my rivals' work while seething at their manifest talents. The judges read out their little summations of each book's virtues (mine sounded about as amusing as a hole in a parachute). Saga magazine's glamorous editrix Emma Soames called the shortlistees on stage, produced an enormous cardboard cheque for £20,000, and handed it to Christopher Robbins. Flashlights popped in the sudden darkness and everyone cheered. Instantly, a heavy cloak of greed and disagreeableness fell from my shoulders, and I felt positively elated. I didn't have the £20,000 - but that was OK because the right book had won, and I hadn't deserved to win, and my speech was crap anyway, and now I could stop being eaten up with green-eyed writerly envy.

Good God, the relief. I signed a few books with a flourish and went out to an excellent dinner with the Saga people. Book prizes are marvellous things, no question. But I'd no idea how easily being on a shortlist could turn your heart to stone. If my experience is anything to go by, Beryl Bainbridge, five times shortlisted for the Booker, should be a psychopath by now.