Don's Diary

November 2, 2001

March 2001
My first meeting with fellow Booker prize judges at the Savile Club in Brook Street. A lively lunch with Kenneth Baker, Philip Hensher, Michelle Roberts and Kate Summerscale. In the months to come, we get on really well, with a few bumps but no major splits. Martyn Goff, the Booker prize administrator, has amusing stories about previous panels, and is probably collecting ones about us. He keeps us to the rules, but never passes an opinion himself.

After two weeks, the first box arrives on my doorstep. Over the next four months, there will be 11 more, each one bigger and heavier than the last.

On holiday in France. There are worse fates than sitting in the sun allowed to read all day. But putting down one novel and picking up another a minute later is tough - you give yourself to one imagined world only to have to dump it for another. I will do this about 120 times for the Booker.

Lunch at the Athenaeum to exchange notes. We are calling titles in - books not submitted but worth considering. We agree on a further 19. I can now do two books a day (three if one is a dud).

We are here to choose a published long list, and at the end of the day we have 24 titles ready for the press. Salman Rushdie's Fury does not make it. We predict what the newspapers will say: "Booker panel snubs Rushdie."

Back in London again to choose the final six titles. Agony over Beryl Bainbridge's According to Queeney . In the end, we are really pleased to see three relatively young writers on our list - Rachel Seiffert, Ali Smith and David Mitchell.

We predict the press response again: "Bainbridge dumped by Booker jury." Oh dear. The books, and all the authors on the long list, deserve better than that.

Kenneth Baker alarms us at the press conference: "Hurry up. Ask your questions. That's enough photographs. Are you done now?" A political lifetime's experience in those genial, peremptory tones. Back home to read the last six again.

My luggage is lost between Edinburgh and Stansted. I have to hire a dinner suit from a legal outfitters in High Holborn.

The Guildhall is under heavy security. We start to work through the books, but how do you decide between different kinds of excellence? If we have done our job properly, any one of them should be a fine and worthy winner, and indeed our debates are more of a dance than a wrestling match, for each of us can see the merits of each book. But the minuet winds down to the last two titles - McEwan and Carey. And then it is settled. We reach thankfully for the drinks.

Downstairs to the dinner and the speeches. It has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I feel a certain battlefield solidarity with my fellow judges. We have been to the trenches and come back.

At the airport on the way home, I pick up a paperback.

Rory Watson is professor in English studies and director of the Centre for Scottish Studies, University of Stirling.

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