You are here

Margaret Busby's fruity language

Margaret Busby's fruity language

A recent interview with the chair of Booker Prize judges, Margaret Busby, threw up some fascinating “did you know?” facts. For example, did you know that her father, born in Ghana (as was Busby herself), the son of a tailor, studied medicine and that his long service is commemorated by a blue plaque in Walthamstow? Busby herself was schooled in England and claims that her polyglot establishment meant that as a child “I could count in Farsi, swear in Mandarin and sing in Spanish.” One wonders if her fellow Booker Prize judges have yet heard her four-letter Mandarin. Naturally enough, as the first black female publisher in Great Britain, race plays a prominent part in her story, though she has some salutary words about being seen as a representative of black culture. In her roles as an editor or reviewer, she says, “the assumption is that it’s got to be a black writer or a black subject or else I’m not qualified. It’s so limiting! A lot of black people, especially those brought up in this country, it’s not that they know only about black culture. I know about Chaucer and Milton and Molière as well – you know twice as much, not half as much.”

A Booker Prize win tends to be a gateway to future distinctions. Anna Burns, for example, winner in 2018 with Milkman, has just scooped the €100,000 International Dublin Literary Award, becoming the first Irish woman writer to take the top spot. Small matter that this remunerative recognition comes fully two years after the Booker Prize judges recognised her merit, it is both validation and a nest-egg for a writer who knew real hardship and penury before the Booker came knocking. The award is the result of nominations from librarians around the world and this seems to have particularly pleased Burns: “Libraries have always been important to me,” she said. “I have prominent memories of my childhood Saturdays when I would go to the library with my aunt. There seemed to be a black market in library tickets when I was growing up, nobody seemed to have their own but people would have three to five cards and come out with nine to 15 books.” She can now afford to buy her own.

One of the current joint Booker Prize champs, Bernardine Evaristo, meanwhile has accepted the invitation to become a poacher-turned-gamekeeper and has just been announced as the chair of the Women’s Prize for Fiction for 2021. Clearly missing out on the 2020 prize herself, after being shortlisted, has not soured her attitude. The prize marks its 25th anniversary this year, though perhaps it is not too churlish to point out that the Booker Prize has long been gender blind; since 2020, for example, there have been nine women winners – half of all possibles.

After Marlon James won the Booker Prize winner in 2015 he embarked on a fantasy trilogy, the first volume of which was called Black Leopard, Red Wolf. The book has just been named by Time magazine as one of its “100 best fantasy books of all time”. The judges comprised a selection of fantasy writers which included Neil Gaiman, George R R Martin and, er, James himself. Conspiracy theorists or election observers should be reassured that there was nothing untoward here, however; the judges were not allowed to nominate or vote for themselves.

There is gloom but gratitude hovering over the Booker Prize this week with the announcement of two literary deaths. Tom Maschler was the founding father of the prize when in 1969 he decided to start a Commonwealth equivalent of France’s Prix Goncourt and sourced funding for the project from Booker-McConnell. He may not have realised then how enduring and important his creation was to become. Of course he was a blue-chip publisher too and it is hard to imagine another editor who will ever match his roster of writers. Among them were Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Heller, Gabriel García Márquez, Bruce Chatwin, Doris Lessing and two winners of the Booker Prize, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie, and one International Booker prize winner, Philip Roth. And Jeffrey Archer. Jill Paton-Walsh was the prize’s second loss. In 1994 she was shortlisted for The Knowledge of Angels and although James Kelman won that year, Paton-Walsh notched up a place in history by being the first self-published author to be listed for the prize. As if to show her versatility and impatience with traditional norms, she went on to great success with her books for children and her Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane mysteries that continued the lives of the Dorothy L Sayers characters. She once described herself as “a late starter” but clearly made up for it afterwards.

Margaret Busby by Luke Daniels January 2020