To mark the 4oth anniversary of the Booker Prize, a panel of judges was asked to select a shortlist of the best books to have won the prize in the previous four decades. For the first time the overall winner will be selected by a public vote. As part of the London Literature Festival, a panel champion the novel they think should win from the shortlist, followed by a vote from the audience prior to the announcement of the public vote on Thursday.
I head down to soak up the atmosphere of the festival and to watch the panel put their case. Here's my report from Saturday evening ...
The festival is vibrant, busy and fun. People play in the water sculpture, eat ice-cream and drink as staff dressed in black flit amongst them dropping books from the Best of the Booker.
Festival deckchairs litter the site bringing a feeling of summer to the riverside.
At the event the panel read extracts. Claire Armitstead, the literary editor of the Guardian, reads chapter thirty-three from Peter Carey's Oscar & Lucinda . It's been twenty years since she last read it and she has clearly enjoyed coming back to an old friend.
Peter Kemp, the fiction editor of The Sunday Times and a Booker judge in 1995, reads from Pat Barker's The Ghost Road and describes it as "a triumph of imagination and intelligence."
Writer, Lesley Lokko, reads the very last pages from the 1994 winner The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer and defends a difficult book that "inhabits the tricky place between art and life."
Edna O'Brien, an author who was on the 1973 panel of The Booker, reads a page and a half from JG Farrell's The Seige of Krishnapur. She recounts how she was asked in 1973, "She has changed her mind. Do you wish to change your mind?" when her fellow judge, Mary McCarthy, changed her mind after agreeing to Farrell and wanted Iris Murdock's The Black Prince to win.
The author, Kamila Shamsie, speaks passionately on Salmon Rushdie's Midnight's Children which won the Best of the Booker when it was 25 years-old and describes a feeling of joyfulness that comes from reading the book.
Mark Thwaite, from Ready Steady Book, champions JM Coetzee's Disgrace once, that is, he has humorously lambasted the other shortlisted books. Mark himself is interesting, funny yet strangely dry in his delivery.
After, we all vote and questions are taken from the audience. Some of the panel admit they can't understand why other past winners didn't make the final shortlist and some, like Peter Kemp and Mark Thwaite, say they would have chosen different past winners to champion.
The winner is announced. Salmon Rushdie with 47 votes for Midnight's Children. In the end this is somewhat of an anticlimax and the panel and audience quickly disperses. But perhaps in the end, like in a good book, the joy was in treading the path rather than in the end itself.
The London Festival runs until July 19th. For details click here.
Top picture : Appearing Rooms Fountain at the festival.
Middle : One of the hundreds of books dropped around the site.
Bottom: Relaxing on Festival deckchairs
All pictures by Mike