Revealed: how the Booker changed Cheltenham

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The Independent Online
I WAS at the Cheltenham Literary Festival twice last week, both times on rather curious missions. The first time was to play in a band led by the festival's director and ace bass saxophone player, Humphrey Carpenter, and the second to share a stage with Edward Enfield, the man from whom Harry Enfield inherited his sense of humour; thus, by accident, I was at the festival both before and after the announcement of the winner of the Booker Prize, and I can tell you how it changed the literary world.

I imagine that even on the evening of the announcement of the Booker winner, not many people in the country at large were discussing who he or she might be. At the Cheltenham Literary Festival it was quite different. Nobody was discussing it. Not a soul. Not a single reference did I hear to the Booker at Cheltenham, though a few days later, when Radio 4's Any Questions was recorded at the festival, I did hear the panel being asked what they thought about the winner.

(This being Any Questions, the audience has been programmed to believe that only topical questions are of interest, which is the opposite of the truth, so they only ask questions about the Budget and Tony Blair and the Princess of Wales and men called Hewitt, and on rare occasions when they do ask more interesting questions, they ask them in the style of MPs, either snarling or fawning. So the question about the Booker was, snarlingly: 'What does the panel think of the Booker Prize fiasco?' Chairman Jonathan Dimbleby did not explain what the fiasco was meant to be. He just passed the question on.) Miraculously Ken Follett, one of the panelists, had actually read the Booker Prize winner by James Kelman. 'It is a literary tour de force,' he said.

'Having said that, I must also say that it is almost impossible to read.'

My wife, hearing this, said she had heard that Kelman's novel was written in a terse Glasgow dialect and might be open to challenge. 'If I were the writer of a Booker runner-up,' she said, 'I would lodge an objection on the grounds that the winner was not written in the English language, as specified in the rules.'

'There would be great wrath from north of the border and accusations of racism,' I said.

'Great] You can't buy publicity like that,' she said. 'The sales would double overnight.'

My wife is a great loss to public relations. But the point of all this is that in Cheltenham Town Hall, where the festival takes place, there is a room set aside for the selling of books by Waterstone's, and I noticed that on the day of the Booker announcement the tables were stacked high with the six Booker shortlisted novels. Two days after the announcement, on my return, I could not see them anywhere.

This meant either the sales had been phenomenal and the books had all gone to good homes, or the sales had been abysmal and the books had all gone to Barnardo's. I asked the sales assistant how well the Booker winner had sold.

She calculated in her head. After what seemed a long time she said: 'I honestly don't think we have sold one, to my knowledge.'

'And the other books on the short list?'

'None, except Alan Hollinghurst's book, which did well when people thought it was going to win; apart from that . . .'

'Surely some books must have done specially well?'

'Well, nothing specially well . . . oh, except that book on Dymock. That's been a surprise seller.' She pointed at a slim volume by Sean Street, all about the short-lived poets' colony in the Gloucestershire village of Dymock, which, for a short while in 1914, offered a civilised alternative to the coming Great War.

Having read this piece, now answer these questions.

1. Can you name the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, announced a couple of days ago?

2. How many of his books are available in English (a) very few? (b) none?

3. If you removed all four-letter words from a James Kelman novel, would it still be long enough to qualify as a novel?

4. If the sales of a Booker Prize winner are zero, and they double overnight after a well-planned publicity campaign by my wife, will they still be zero?

5. Are writers only of interest to the British when they live in a small Gloucestershire village a long time ago?

6. What price prizes?