Booker winner who shunned the celebrity circuit

PH Newby took the very first prize but kept his day job

Katy Guest
Sunday 24 February 2008 01:00
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Towards the end of 1969, Pele scored his 1,000th goal, hundreds of thousands demonstrated against the Vietnam War, Nasa launched the second manned Moon mission and a little-known BBC producer called Howard Newby won the first Booker Prize.

PH Newby's 10th novel, Something to Answer For, was set in Egypt in the aftermath of the Second World War. "It was 1956 and he was in Port Said," ran the snappy synopsis on a stark, red and orange-lettered cover. "About these two facts he was reasonably certain but a murderous attack left him certain about little else – maybe just the conviction that the British usually did the right thing and that to be a crook a man must assume the society he lived in was honest." The judges, including Frank Kermode and Stephen Spender, placed it at the top of a shortlist of Nicholas Mosley, Barry England, Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark and G M Williams.

When the Booker was established 40 years ago, it was intended to be an English equivalent of the Prix Goncourt. It would "encourage the wider reading of the very best in fiction across the UK and the Commonwealth," says its current administrator, Ion Trewin.

It largely succeeded. As the prize celebrates its 40th year with a publicly voted "Best of the Bookers", a winner can be sure of a fillip to sales and a lasting reputation. Last year's winner, Anne Enright, had sold a few thousand copies of The Gathering in the months leading up to the prize. When she won it, the book leapt into the bestseller chart and her publisher rushed out another 100,000.

For Newby, however, the Booker was not such a life-changing experience. Born in 1918 in Crowborough, Sussex, he was a grammar school-educated boy who joined the Medical Corps in 1939 and fought as a private in France. His unit was one of the last to be evacuated; he was sent on to serve in the Egyptian desert until he was released from duty in 1942.

Egypt became a recurring theme in his books, from Something to Answer For to his 1979 non-fiction book, Egypt Story. He taught English Literature at Fouad 1st University in Cairo until the war ended, but when his first novel, A Journey Into the Interior, was published in 1946, he returned to England to write.

Success came quickly: that same year, he won the Atlantic Award for literature and, in 1948, he scooped the second Somerset Maugham Award.

Early book covers show the smiling young author in a tweed suit; later ones depict a serious, dark-eyed man with steel-grey hair and a determined set to the mouth. At the BBC, he was known as formidable, but fair. The writer Philip French recalled how, as head of the Third Programme in 1961, Newby allowed a controversial interview with Norman Mailer to run – but only after making all the station's producers vote on whether it was acceptable listening.

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