Miles Kington: The sinister secrets of a literary prize jury

'Why do you set your novels in Shepherd's Bush?' she asks. 'Because I can't afford to set them in Notting Hill any more'
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The Independent Online

It's nearly the weekend, so for your leisure reading I am bringing you another episode of our great serial "If Horses Could Fly".

The story so far: Jenny Furlong is an up-and-coming TV news presenter who, to her great delight, has been asked to be a judge on the Booker Prize jury. Pausing only to wonder how members of a jury can be called judges, she accepts with alacrity and asks for a pay rise for the added kudos. Her boss, Herbert Crowther, says he does not think having a newsreader judging the Booker Prize is likely to garner the BBC more kudos, and says he is minded to reduce her pay, on the grounds that she will spend the next six months reading books and her mind will not be on the job.

"Humph!" says Jenny, which is an exclamation and not a famous trumpeter, and stomps off to the first informal meeting of the jury in a temper. However, her mood lifts when she finds that one of her fellow judges is Nichol Vickery, the drop-dead gorgeous novelist whose last three books were set in Shepherd's Bush.

"Why do you set your novels in Shepherd's Bush?" she asks him curiously.

"Because I can't afford to set them in Notting Hill any more," he says. "Is this your first time judging the Booker Prize?"

As he says this, a tall muscular man wearing only a loin-cloth leaps into the room and cracks a whip.

"Watch your language!" he snarls. "It is now the Man Booker Prize! We must not call it the Booker Prize any more!"

"Why did it change its name from Booker to Man Booker?" says Jenny as the alarming man with the whip leaves the room.

"I think they thought it would give it more street cred," says Nichol. "The young all call each other 'man' so they thought they'd call the prize that as well."

That weekend Jenny goes to the country to stay with her parents, who live in a nice house near Dorking, taking the first six Man Booker novels with her.

"Your father's not very well," says Mrs Furlong. "He was in an accident this morning."

"An accident? My God!"

"Oh, it was nothing," she says. "He was coming down in the stairlift too fast, I was going upstairs, and we had a collision."

"But I thought stairlifts went at a constant speed! You can't go too fast in one!"

"Well, maybe I was going upstairs too fast. Anyway, he's in the living room watching the news to see if you're presenting it. It'll be a nice surprise for him."

Jenny goes into the living room. Her father looks up.

"You're that girl off the TV," he says. "What's her name. It'll come back to me. So, what are the headlines this evening? Tell me. It'll save me the bother of watching."

Jenny smiles. It's a joke they have long shared, him pretending that his memory is going.

"Bought some of your Booker Prize rubbish home, have you?" he says, eyeing the books. Just then the phone goes and she answers it.

"We warned you," says an evil voice. "It is not the Booker Prize any more. It is the Man Booker Prize. Tell your father to get it right, if he knows what's good for him."

The phone goes dead.

"Found a nice young man yet?" says her mother coming into the room. "Or have you turned out to be lesbian?"

"Mother!" says Jenny. "As a top newsreader I simply don't have time to find out which way my sexuality leans! It's a full-time job."

That night in bed, she starts the first of the Booker, sorry, Man Booker novels, and is rather startled to find that it is set in Shepherd's Bush, and even more startled when the heroine has an accident with a stairlift. If that isn't enough, the heroine also works as a TV newsreader, and has trouble pronouncing "constituency", in exactly the same way that Jenny does. Curiously, she looks at the author's name. It's Alison Wainwright. Just then her mobile rings.

"You don't know me," says a woman's voice, "but I'm Alison Wainwright..."

Jenny's screaming brings her mother running to her room.

Now read on...

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