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The wheel turns

The wheel turns

The Man Booker Prize never sleeps. Barely has the dust settled on this year’s award with Anna Burns’ reaping the rewards of her win in the pre-Christmas book sales than the 2019 prize is up and running. The judges for next year’s prize have just been announced. Peter Florence, director of the Hay Festival is chair and is joined by a quartet of women – the former publisher and editor Liz Calder; the novelist and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo; the writer and broadcaster Afua Hirsch; and the pianist and composer Joanna MacGregor. The distaff side is more pronounced than 2017 and 2018’s panels which both had three women and two men. It is the first time women have held such a judging majority in the history of the prize; unfortunately, the judging process is more secretive than the conclave of cardinals that elects a new pope, so whether the whole process has a different feel to it we may never know.


Florence and Calder in particular have what the police call “previous” with the prize. With his Hay hat on, Florence championed the likes of Arundhati Roy and D.B.C. Pierre before they went on to win the Man Booker. Calder has actually published two Man Booker winners, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac. As a founding director of Bloomsbury Publishing, her authors included three further winners: Margaret Atwood, Nadine Gordimer and Michael Ondaatje. So, in short, the Man Booker thing. . . they get it.


The other thing they get is honours. Last week Calder was at Buckingham Palace to receive a CBE from the Prince of Wales for services to literature. As she said of the encounter: “His wife is very interested in literature and she always goes to the Booker prize, so that was nice, as we had that to talk about.” Calder follows in the footsteps of Florence, who received his CBE last year, and Joanna MacGregor who was awarded an OBE back in 2012.  Judging meetings are in danger of being drowned out by the clanking of medals.


Meanwhile, one of this year’s shortlistees, Daisy Johnson (Everything Under), is making a very quick transition from judged to judge. She has just been named as one of the panel selected to choose the £15,000 BBC National Short Story Award – the prize she herself won in 2017. If nothing else, this instance of literary poacher turned gamekeeper should provide more than enough material for her next short story.


Sad news as the year draws to an end: the death of Justin Cartwright at 73. He had a colourful life: he was born in South Africa and studied in both America and at Oxford (where he did a PhD on Oliver Cromwell) before moving into advertising (he wrote an ad for Pal dog food which won an award at Cannes: “To this day I can't bear the smell of pet food”, he later said) and working on election broadcasts for the Liberal and Lib Dem parties. He then turned to writing fiction and his 1996 novel In Every Face I Meet was shortlisted for the then Booker Prize. In 2011 he renewed his acquaintance with the prize when he was a judge on the Man Booker International Prize. Above all Cartwright was a gentle and kind man with an understated gift.


In 2010 Andrea Levy was Man Booker shortlisted for her novel of slavery in Jamaica in the early 19th century (echoes of this year’s Washington Black by Esi Edugyan) and now it will be screened as a three-part mini-series on BBC One. The project was seven years in the making – the fact that the book coincided with the Oscar winning 12 Years a Slave leading to some reluctance to make another film on the topic. Among its stars are Haley Atwell and Lenny Henry. Atwell has said that playing her slave owner character left her feeling “disgusting”; why will be revealed when the first episode airs on 18 December.