This is a cheat. I’m only going back in history as far as 1969 – the year the Booker Prize was instituted. Do you remember what you were doing in 1969? Probably half of you reading this post weren’t even born. Do you remember the winner? I didn’t. I glanced through the Man Booker booklet and found it was P.H. Newby for his novel Something to Answer For.
1969 was a year when I wore skirts shorter than any I’ve ever worn and will ever wear, and my bikini was smaller than any I’ve ever worn and certainly will ever wear! Dr Chris Barnard had only just performed the first heart transplant. I’d seen Francois Hardy perform live in Cape Town. I’d heard Neil Armstrong speak from the moon. The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin and the Beatles were all doing their thing and Woodstock took place on a New York farm.
In 1969 my days were defined by reading on the beach, dancing the nights away and earning a paltry salary as an art teacher, dreaming of saving enough money for a ticket on the mail-ship to Southampton so I could get to London where it was all happening! I lived in a wooden cottage above one of the most famous and beautiful beaches in the world – Clifton, where surfers were still using longboards and where across the water, Nelson Mandela was chipping stone in a quarry on Robin Island.
I hadn’t heard of the Booker. I was reading Ayn Rand, Leon Uris, Robert Ruark, Doris Lessing and a few Dostoevsky’s thrown in. The first Booker I ever read was 5 years later in 1974 when Nadine Gordimer won with The Conservationist. A discomforting book about a capitalist who believes he has won privilege through hard work and not birth, which jabbed at my conscience. After that it was easy jump to other South African writers… Andre Brink’s An Instant in the Wind (the story still haunts me) won in 1976 and his Rumours of Rain short-listed in 1978 when Iris Murdoch’s The Sea The Sea won, and J M Coetzee’s 1983 winner Life and Times of Michael K. I didn’t read Thomas Keneally’s Shindler’s Ark which preceded Michael K but I did read Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac which won the next year. I’m sure I pass Anita Brookner on the Fulham Road. She seems to be getting more fragile and like the characters in her books, seems rather alone.
Right now I’ve just read Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie and have started Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English. But what I most wish is that (like Adele Geras and Linda Newbery and I’m sure many others too) I’d kept a detailed list of all the books I’d ever read. It would be interesting to know what I thought as a 20 year old, a 30 year old and a 40 year old and how the history of the day impacted on me as a reader.
If you were to choose your best Booker ever over the last 43 years since 1969, what would it be? Would it be Salman Rushie’s Midnight’ Children which won the overall 40 year winner by popular online vote, or would it be:
Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall
Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty
Yann Martel’s Life of Pi
Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient
Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day
And if you could include books from the short list too:
Emma Donoghue’s Room
Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room
Tim Winton’s Dirt Music
Ian McEwan’s Atonement
Carol Shield’s The Stone Diaries
A S Byatt’s Possession or The Children’s Book
Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda.
Or something from Rose Tremain? Beryl Bainbridge? Graham Swift? Margaret Atwood? Anne Enright? Iris Murdoch? My list might become very long.
What overall winner would you choose since 1969? And if not one overall winner, what short-list would you have for the past 43 years?
And what book would you choose for one that never made it? Mine would be Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing (1950) which I haven’t read for years but which still resonates with me. But perhaps like Julian Barnes’s narrator in The Sense of an Ending… ‘What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.’