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Leaving the stage

Leaving the stage

A sad week at The Booker Prizes. The death of Sir Ronald Harwood, a long-term trustee of the Booker Prize Foundation, was announced just a week before this year’s Booker Prize shortlist is revealed. Ronnie was known to the outside world as a distinguished playwright, author of The Dresser and Oscar winner for his screenplay for The Pianist, but to the Prize and those who work behind its scenes, he was a gregarious, amusing and committed colleague. As is sometimes the case with people who wear their distinction lightly, it was easy to forget in his company that he had such a stellar career – first as an actor then as a writer with 21 stage plays, 10 books and 16 screenplays to his name, plus the presidency of the writers’ charity PEN and PEN International, chairmanship of the Royal Society of Literature and presidency of the Royal Literary Fund. A knighthood and an OBE topped off his spectacular accumulation of honours. As this list shows, Ronnie’s life revolved around writers and the written word but he will be remembered by the Booker Prize family as the grandee who was anything but grand.

As if to prove that The Booker Prizes never sleep, no sooner has The 2020 International Booker Prize anointed its winners – Marieke Lucas Rijneveld and Michele Hutchison – than it announces the judges for next year’s iteration. The panel comprises the cultural historian and novelist Lucy Hughes-Hallett (chair), the journalist Aida Edemariam, the novelist Neel Mukherjee, the Professor of the History of Slavery Olivette Otele, and the poet, translator and biographer George Szirtes. They are a distinguished crew: Mukherjee is familiar with the prize razzmatazz as a former Man Booker shortlistee in 2014, in 2015 Szirtes won The International Booker Prize himself as translator of László Krasznahorkai’s works, and Hughes-Hallett is a former winner of the Bookers’ sister prize for non-fiction, the Samuel Johnson Prize, now The Baillie Gifford Prize. Indeed, between them, the panel have accumulated so many awards and gongs that they can barely walk. Perhaps that’s just as well. They will be reading solidly from now until March next year when they will emerge blinking in the light with their longlist.

It is invidious to single out a particular literary festival when the country has so many that are fighting the good fight for literature at all times and not just in these difficult ones, but the Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival, which runs from 16 to 20 September, offers a delight most other festivals can’t match. The Devon seaside town is, of course, the home of The Booker Prize heroine Hilary Mantel (who will find out next week whether she has made the shortlist for the third time), and her support for the festival – she is its president – has undoubtedly helped it draw in some big names. She though is the biggest name of them all, and will kick off proceedings with James Naughtie. Jim, a BBC Special Correspondent and Booker Prize Foundation trustee, also has a book of his own out, a survey of his experiences of American politics called On the Road, which, like The Mirror and the Light, was stymied by the arrival of the coronavirus. What gives their encounter piquancy, however, is that Naughtie was chair of judges when Mantel was awarded her first Booker Prize, for Wolf Hall, and everything changed for her. So, appropriately, they have history.

A nice addition for Zadie Smith’s mantelpiece. The double Booker Prize nominee (for On Beauty and Swing Time) has just been made an honorary fellow of the Royal Academy. The RA is, of course, an organisation run by its members for its members and receives no public funds. This means it can be very particular about who it honours. Smith is not a painter or sculptor (at least not that we know of) so becoming a full academician is off limits but this latest recognition is proof that a good artist is a good artist, whatever form their work takes. 

A diary reminder: The 2020 Booker Prize shortlist will be unveiled on Tuesday 15 September at 5pm BST on the Booker Prizes’ YouTube channel and  Facebook page. Margaret Busby, chair of judges, will be joined by her fellow deliberators to discuss their choices. The reveal is a chance to consider the list in relative peace and quiet before the world piles in with its annual barrage of approval, criticism, mystification, and chatter.