Of Booker, books and the bookies

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The Independent Online
NEARLY time for the Booker Prize now, and the excitement is well nigh palpable. Down here in the West Country, they have talked of little else for weeks. It's hardly possible to go outside in these early days of autumn without some yokel taking the straw out of his mouth and saying: 'What do you reckon to the prize, then?' Is that what they call a straw poll?

And only the other day I was stopped by a motorist who was obviously well lost, and I was about to tell him the way back to civilisation, when he said: 'So, who's for the Booker then?' Damned if I was going to give a foreigner any tips, but I had to admit he had the right spirit.

We had our Booker Sweepstake evening in the village pub the other night, and though I have had the bad luck to draw Anita Brookner, who is not actually on the shortlist, or indeed even entered this year, it's easily the most exciting evening I have spent at the pub since that time they found the visitor from London cheating at shove ha'penny, tarred and feathered him, and threw him in the river.

And then, well after midnight, the door of the pub opened and the local policeman came in.

'It grieves me to find you all drinking after hours,' he said solemnly. 'It leaves me with only one course of action, my friends.'

'Not so,' said the landlord. 'Would you be surprised to learn that our little gathering is entirely legal? To wit, that I have gained a special magistrate's extension to 1am for our Booker Prize discussion seminar dance 'n' disco?'

'You fair fooled me there,' said the policeman, wreathed in smiles once the extent of his deception was known to him. 'May I come in and join you?'

'What, not drinking on duty?' said mine host, somewhat concerned.

'Not to drink,' said the arm of the law. 'To discuss the Booker with you. It does a man good to unwind with a literary discussion at the end of a hard night's apprehension.'

You may gather from all this foregoing that we are a bookish lot in the village. If you gather that, you were never wronger in your life. Although the English are supposed to be a literary nation, I privately doubt this. All that means is that our painters and composers are even more minor league than our writers.

Even when I lived in London I never met anyone who had actually read a book featured on the Booker Prize list. When my first wife and I split up, we had only one small disagreement about property, over a Booker prizewinning novel that neither of us remembered buying. She insisted it was mine and I insisted she should have it. We compromised, for fear of having a quarrel, and gave it to Oxfam.

Now that I live in a West Country village, the talk turns to the Booker Prize come autumn, but why? Because of an even older English habit than reading - betting. There is money to be won from the Booker Prize, and it is not only by the winning author - in fact, I would wager (see how easily I slip into the habit myself?) that more money changes hands between the punters and bookies than ever slips one way between the Booker people and their novelist of the year.

So it came to pass that we at the pub spent the evening studying form for the Booker. Was it a foreigner's turn to win? Was it time for a woman? Which publisher needed most to carry off the prize? How did we calculate the chemical interaction between the judges? Would they be more likely to disagree violently and then go for a compromise winner, or to be unanimous behind a front-runner?

We behaved, in fact, exactly as we would have behaved if we had been in a bookmaker's looking at horse racing. The one thing we did not do was read the books themselves so that we could discuss their innate quality - this, it was tacitly agreed, could lead to subjective fancies being born and judgement being warped. After all, how many of the people you find in the average bookmaker's have actually ridden a horse, let alone the horses in the race under discussion? And how much would it help if they had? Well, then.

Anyway, by 2.30am we had fixed on the book that we think will canter home by a short head. We had a whip round, and raised pounds 50 to put on it. The next day I went into town to place the bet and now all we have to do is wait and see if we are on to a good thing.

Who said that England is not a literary country? It may have been me. If so, I take it all back.

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