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Letter: Whitbread: the judges' choice

From Mr Simon Tait

Sir: The sniping at the Whitbread Book of the Year judges over the past few days is more than a little irritating. Commentators from AN Wilson to Andrew Neil seem undecided as to whether we were philistines, who had failed to understand the importance of Salman Rushdie to our literary culture as against an unheard of woman who had never written a novel before, or literati, who for some spiteful reason had conspired to deny Rushdie his right.

I, for one, am not abashed to say that I voted for Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum. That the Atkinson book was the best of the five was an opinion I went into the judging with; I was open to persuasion, and I was not moved to change my mind.

I do not know how the other judges voted, it was a secret ballot; but as a matter of record, there were seven votes cast and two abstentions, including that of the chairman, Richard Hoggart. Of the seven, four were for Behind the Scenes at the Museum two were for Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh and one was for Roy Jenkins's Gladstone.

At the outset of the conclave, Professor Hoggart reminded us that we were voting for books, not authors, but I think we were already clear about that. Our task was to pick the best contribution to the literature of 1995. My conclusion was that Rushdie is a significant writer who had not, this time, written a great novel, and that Atkinson had produced an ingenious and accessible piece of work which was the better book.

Yours faithfully

Simon Tait

London, SE22

27 January