William Donaldson's Week: I had the PM in my pocket

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The Independent Online
I'M SURPRISED that last week's British Book Awards 1992 didn't receive wider coverage in the press. It was a strange evening, enlivened by an unusual number of incidents off the ball - most of them, I'm embarrassed to say, occasioned by my two main publishers, Geoffrey Strachan and Michael O'Mara.

That Michael O'Mara, a bookish and retiring man, should turn out such a bad winner came as no surprise; that Geoffrey Strachan is such a bad loser was less to be expected.

More of that in due course. First, let me apologise for saying last week that I would be attending the do under an assumed dinner jacket kindly lent by a regular reader of this column. That was a flat lie, I'm afraid, motivated by a desire to suggest that there is a regular reader of this column.

In fact, I hired the entire outfit from Moss Bros, and a good thing, too, since, had I not done so, I wouldn't, at a crucial moment on the podium, have saved the evening from disaster by withdrawing from my trouser pocket not my own prepared joke but the Prime Minister's Carlton Club speech about inner-city crime.

Unsurprisingly, his analysis of its roots, and his attempt to attach blame for these to socialist principles, had everyone rolling in the aisles. Fat marketing men in assumed suits, fighting to catch their breath, punched one another in the stomach, while skinny, power- crazed women screeched hysterically and fell face down into the vol-au-vents. The night was saved, and in the nick of time.

It had started well enough, - at least for me. Alison, my beloved, sweetly tanned after her skiing holiday in Florida with her father, was on her best behaviour; I'd negotiated the foyer without being served with more than an acceptable number of writs by keen young publishers in pursuit of overdue books; and, on my way to the top table (I was in O'Mara's party), I had been of some assistance, I think, to Michael Palin, who asked me if I had any jokes up my sleeve.

Although we were competitors under Comic Travel (I for Root into Europe, he for Pole to Pole), I saw no reason not to help him, so said that I had just one to cover all eventualities, adding that, since I had been nominated under six categories, I might find myself making the same joke on six occasions.

'And not for the first time,' he said - rather nastily, I thought, but I let that pass since he has a reputation for sharp and uncalled-for comments. 'What is it, anyway?'

'It came to me,' I said, 'when I saw Roy Hattersley in the foyer. On being handed an award, I shall say that this is the second most exciting moment of my life. The most exciting, I'll say, was when Roy Hattersley sold me two tickets just now for Sheffield Wednesday's match on Saturday.'

'That's pathetic,' said Palin.

What an unpleasant man, I thought, everything they say about him is true. I recovered, however, when, on joining my table, I discovered that O'Mara was already shit-bagging the occasion. 'This is a vulgar enterprise,' he said. 'Merely an excuse for a lot of common tradesmen - publishers, booksellers and so forth - to slap each other on the back. It's an insult to every writer in the room - not that there are any, except Sue Townsend.'

'What about me?' I said.

'My point precisely,' he said.

That was good, but he did even better when I was nominated, under Fiction, for The Big One, the Black One, the Fat One and the Other One. Although he had published this, he led the booing, shouting 'It's an outrage]' and only stopping when the prize went to someone else. Then he cheered - excessively, I thought - when Palin prevailed under Comic Travel.

'This is the second most

exciting moment of my

life,' said Palin. 'The most exciting was just now when Roy Hattersley . . .'

I couldn't believe my ears. I didn't have long to brood, however, since it was then announced that O'Mara had won the Publisher of the Year Award for Andrew Morton's Diana: Her True Story.

'It's an outrage]' he cried, whereupon a distraught Geoffrey Strachan hopped on to the podium, waving sales figures and insisting that Reed Consumer Books should have won with Sex by Madonna.

'If it means so much to you, you can have it,' said O'Mara. Strachan wept with gratitude, and it was then announced that I had won the Jeremy Isaacs Award for Perseverance and General Attitude.

Stumped for a joke, but buoyed up by the fact that my beloved would see me as a winner after all, I fished around in my trouser pockets, shortly discovering some notes for a speech, which I started to read.

'I'll be brief,' I read, 'since I have to be back in Moss Bros' window in an hour.'

What the hell was this? Everyone laughed so I read on. 'Socialism must face the fact that it is where the state has intervened that local communities have been destroyed.'

My audience was convulsed, my triumph complete, so I returned to my table to bask in my beloved's admiration. She wasn't there. 'She left with Michael Palin,' O'Mara said.