“Snapshots of the Booker Prize”

Alison Summers. Commissioned by The Bulletin.1988. London…

Friday October 21st.

We are at Heathrow Airport. Outside the skies are blue.  Faber and Faber has sent a car to pick us up. We drive into London breathing the smell of expensive leather.

At Durrants Hotel we are shown to our room, which turns out to be a suite!  There are flowers from Fabers, and from Peter’s agent Deborah Rogers. The sitting room is lovely.

Does this really happen to writers?

Sat October 22.

The papers are full of the Booker Prize.  It is impossible not to get caught up in the tension.  How do London authors cope with six weeks of it?   Do they worry over their odds at Ladbroke’s? The papers report that “Oscar and Lucinda’ is still the favorite.  Kiss of death apparently. In 1985 Peter’s novel Illywhacker was the favorite, a continuing state of affairs which Deborah Rogers would mournfully report to us over the phone. #

Sunday 23rd October.

I go to Paris for the day to visit my sister. I welcome a break from Booker talk.   It’s making me very nervous.  I’m usually the calm one. I’d intended to be a quietening influence on Peter. Now, although I try not to show him, I feel anxious…

1985 was different. There was less fuss, no cars with expensive leather.   Indeed, after the announcement that “Bone People” had won, we could not even get a taxi.   It was raining.  We walked with Robert through the glistening streets. The only bus we could find was going to the depot.

In 1985 the Australian press was nowhere in evidence and now they’re everywhere. Peter’s schedule for tomorrow and Tuesday is so heavily booked with Australian media that it’s hard to squeeze in an interview with The Guardian. There wasn’t this much interest when we left Australia on Thursday yet now there are 3 Australian networks wanting to film him after the Booker dinner.

Monday 24th October.

There is a party for us at the Groucho Club. Carmen Calill says it looks like the Adelaide festival all over again: we met her, Victoria Glendinning, Kazuo Ishiguro, Andrew Motion, Julian Barnes and Liz Calder there earlier this year.

…It’s a nice party.  Towards the end an Australian who has been drinking at the bar downstairs gate-crashes and pins Peter into a corner with some drunken ramblings.   I can see Peter wants to extricate himself but the man looks likely to cry or throw furniture if he senses rejection.  Robert and I launch a rescue attempt.

The Day.

The prize is not just of interest in literary circles. The interest seems general. The porters at Durrants are excited. I am lying on the osteopath’s couch while he tries to persuade my back to oblige him – and me- with a click or two.

“Your husband was here in 1985, wasn’t he?” he asks me. “The year Keri Hulme won.”

…Later I tell Peter.  He thinks I am making it up.

In fact I am busy trying to stop him building up his hopes too high. In 1985 he didn’t care whether he won or not.  But I know it means a lot to him this time. I remind him of what people say, ‘favorites never win’ and ‘usually it’s a compromise candidate’, but he is excited and I am, too.

Worse than that:  I’m a mess. Peter is handling this better than I am.

I walk down the street from our hotel on Tuesday morning and suddenly feel a tightening in my stomach, like I’m going to be sick. I buy a can of lemonade and find a seat. In my heart I think Peter is going to win though I’ve never said it to him. Before I left Australia, my best friend Kathy and I volunteered the same thought.  We hugged, then we became quite solemn, as if saying the un-sayable could bring only bad luck.

I share this feeling with Deborah, Peter’s agent, over lunch today. She tells me she has the same premonition. She is almost sick with nerves,

We’re due at the Guildhall at 7pm. All of the candidates have to prepare a short speech. At 6 pm, Peter is still writing his, reading it to me, asking my opinion as I get dressed. The speech ends up sounding a lot more relaxed than we are….Peter and I hold hands under the table. His hand is damp with sweat. Cameras are trained on us as we push food around our plate.

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