The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold: Cooking up the Booker

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The Independent Online
I NOTE with enthusiasm that the bountiful Booker is upon us once more. As the honorary chairman of the National Book League, I have been responsible for the annual dinner since its inception back in 1965. Might I be permitted to reminisce on its origins?

The idea was simplicity itself. The chairman of Booker McConnell, an old friend and memorable quaffing partner whose name I forget, treated me to an excellent luncheon at the Reform Club. 'I want to talk books,' he said as we were perusing the leather-bound menus. Of course, we both roared with laughter, and I thought nothing more of it at the time, completing a delicious meal of prawn vol-au-vent with cream sauce, roast beef from the trolley and summer pudding with fresh whipped cream - and all without, thank goodness, so much as a word about books passing our lips.

A year passed before I invited the chairman to the Travellers' Club for a light luncheon in return. 'We never did have that talk about books,' he commented as we tucked into a shared chateaubriand, medium rare, washed down with a highly satisfactory Chateauneuf du Pape. Once again, we both had a good laugh, but then his face grew more serious, and at that moment I knew he 'meant business', as it were.

'I wish,' he said, 'to provide a new service to the great British book-buyer. A little more mustard, if I may.' He availed himself, I was glad to note, of the English rather than the French.

'For too long,' he continued, 'the great British book-buyer has had 100 new novels thrown at him every single year, each coming with words of adulation from the reviewers: 'wryly plangent', 'sensitive yet deeply distressing', 'delicately evocative', 'fine yet sturdy', 'small yet big' - you know the sort of thing, Wallace. Mmmm, I think I spy the pudding trolley. Could that be lemon meringue pie, perchance?'

We treated ourselves to two portions of the aforesaid pie, topped up with a dash of fresh cream, and he resumed his tale.

'Where was I? Ah yes] As no persons of what one might call consequence have the time or the inclination to wade their way through all these marvellous new novels, we at Booker McConnell have decided to pay four or five people to do it for them. These people are to be known as 'The Judges', and they will be paid the going rate for ploughing their way through all 100 novels. To make the task a bit more exciting for them, we're giving them a spot of din-dins at the end of it all, and allowing them to compile a 'shortlist' of the six novelists they would like to invite along. Hey presto] - the public will then be able to debate the pros and cons of the 'shortlist' of novelists without the added burden of having to read their marvellous novels. I don't suppose an Irish Coffee would be in order?'

Since that time, I am proud to say that our long-suffering judges have saved the book-buying public from having to read no less than 2,353 marvellous new novels. Instead, they have made the British novel a subject of intense discussion and debate. 'Only one woman on the list this year, I see to my horror]' 'It looks as if the Irishman will pull it off again]' 'I see that the Commonwealth novel has come of age]' 'The loss of empire theme is still holding strong, I note]' 'One of the most plangent novels about growing up in rural New Zealand since the war, I believe]' 'Why no Scotsman this year?' These informed critical comments are now circulating over dinner tables the length and breadth of the land - and all accomplished without having to plough through 'the modern novel' (dread phrase]). Thanks are due to the sterling work of that highly trained crew, our panel of little Judges. We, the literati, salute them]

This year, the Booker Prize dinner, still top secret, promises to be more controversial than ever, with chicken chasseur at 6-1, duck a l'orange at 10-1, boeuf bourgignon 14-1, poached salmon still the 5-2 favourite and roast lamb with redcurrant jelly the rank outsider at 16-1. But with all the dinner hoo-ha, it is all too easy to ignore the poor authors - another triumph, methinks, for the genius that is Booker.

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