Perhaps Lauren Bacall said it best when she stepped on to the stage at the British Book Awards and told Richard and Judy about her autobiography. "I wrote it myself, which is why it is called By Myself and Then Some," said the screen diva, archly. She added: "It is not so easy to write books."
If the celebrity guests in the audience were embarrassed, they didn't show it. Big Brother's Chantelle and I'm a Celebrity's Kerry Katona gazed upon the proceedings blithely, thinking, "Books? What is a book?", and probably "Who is this old bag, anyway?". Accepting his Tesco Sports Book of the Year, Andrew Flintoff announced: "I never thought I'd even write a book, let alone get an award for it." But Freddie darling, you wanted to say, you didn't write it. A very clever ghostwriter did.
But this is not the point. The Nibbies, as they are fondly known, have always been a different kind of book awards. Leave it to the Booker to get literary editors hot under their frayed collars about "a travesty of a judging process". Let the Whitbread panel repeatedly choose the most dustily intellectual book on the shortlist, so that its celebrity judges can bask in reflected credibility. Not for nothing has that prize become known as the Tragic and Desperate Losers Award, for seeming always to honour the most weepingly dreadful life story of the year. The Nibbies do no such thing.
For those of us who remember them before they were glamorous, the Nibbies have always been the publishing industry's knees-up. For one glorious night in the literary year, publicists and editors emerged blinking from their gloomy offices to give themselves a pat on the back and a gallon of cheap champagne. Guests would fiddle with their duck à l'orange with Sisyphean endurance as they were treated to awards for Best Dump Bin, Biggest Cardboard Cutout at a Point of Sale and Lengthiest Ever Foreign Rights Campaign. Publishing News's taciturn publisher, Fred Newman, shuffled between the tables with his Box Brownie. Nobody can forget the year his deputy editor turned up as a cowgirl.
The Nibbies have not changed a bit. Yes, Mr Newman has reluctantly given way to Richard and Judy. Sure, the ceremony is televised by Channel 4. OK, so the duck is now served with redcurrants and the audience peppered with former stars of Footballers' Wives. But in spirit, it is all exactly the same.
At last Wednesday's ceremony, Carol Thatcher admitted she was starstruck. "I've just been backstage and got Tim Rice to sign his daughter Eva's book," she whispered. "I found this very encouraging because I am writing a book and I am looking forward to a certain former Prime Minister signing copies 'Love from Carol's mum'." Rupert Everett repeatedly fluffed his lines. Alan Bennett grumbled affectionately about his readers "stampeding for the Basildon Bond". A queue of men built up the courage to ask the hair-twirling Chantelle Houghton for her phone number, while a crowd of women swooned over the relative merits of historian Dan Snow and his father, Peter. Lots of presenters fell down the stairs.
J K Rowling best summed up the spirit of weeping gratitude, unashamed bean-counting and bemused surreality that has always characterised the British Book Awards. "A Nibbie was the first award I won, and that night I was wearing much cheaper shoes," she said, accepting her Book of the Year award. "I knew I had written a book I was proud of, and that is the only thing a writer can say, other than 'Jesus Christ, look at the royalties'. Oh, and Alan Bennett, you think you've got it bad? Believe me, I get an awful lot of letters, and yes, I know that owls don't eat bacon."Reuse content