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Judges’ got talent

Judges’ got talent

The Booker Prize judges tend to be a distinguished bunch but the announcement of this year’s panel raises the bar. It would be hard to find a more heterogeneous group that still remained within the confines of the literary world. The chair, Margaret Busby, not only founded her own publishing house, Allison and Busby, in 1967 – becoming Britain’s first black publisher and its youngest too – but as an author and journalist has been a lifelong champion of black writing. (Fun fact: she rented her flat in Notting Hill to a young Ben Okri in the 1980s, who wrote The Famished Road there – the novel won the 1991 Booker Prize.) Lee Child meanwhile is simply a phenomenon. He started work as a television director before turning to thriller writing and, to date, 24 Jack Reacher novels that have sold more than 100 million copies (one every 13 seconds apparently). Lemn Sissay was the official poet of the 2012 Olympics and winner of the 2019 PEN Pinter Prize while his autobiography, My Name Is Why, has gathered universal rave reviews. Emily Wilson is a professor of Classics and the first woman to translate The Odyssey into English (a much lauded translation to boot). While Sameer Rahim has spent many years as a literary editor and critic before himself turning to fiction and the opinions of fellow critics with last year’s Asghar and Zahra.

Of course, the pressure is on for this civilised and thoughtful quintet. Not only do they have to steady the ship after last year’s double-winner controversy (have they had to make a hefty non-refundable deposit promising to agree to just a single victor come what may, one wonders?) but they also have to negotiate the expectations surrounding the most anticipated novel of the year – Hilary Mantel’s concluding part of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light (probably the earliest favourite in The Booker Prize history).

Mantel has recently revealed that the actor Ben Miles, who played Cromwell in the stage adaptations of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, has narrated all three of the novels as audiobooks. “His insights from the rehearsal room helped shape the story,” she said. “He is familiar with how all the characters grow, from first page to last. His voice is as close as can be to the voice that's in my head as I write.” The recordings will be released on 10 March, not that The Booker Prize judges will have time for listening.

Someone else with no time to call their own is Ted Hodgkinson, head of Literature and Spoken Word at the Southbank Centre and chair of this year’s International Booker Prize judges. He recently posted a picture of himself standing beside a tower of the books he has so far read – it is taller than him, about to touch the ceiling, and offering a clear and present danger to life and limb. Asked what the experience has been like, he confessed he has been forced to give up “certain things, such as sleep, watching any films or television, cycling to work (because reading on a bike is frowned upon) and did I mention sleep?” What’s more, his family is also feeling the effects: “My son’s bedtime stories have occasionally been swapped for some translated fiction. He’s a very discerning critic.” Time is also snapping at Hodgkinson’s heels: he is due to announce the longlist on 27 February.

Anita Brookner, winner of the 1984 Booker Prize with Hotel du Lac, died in 2016. She was the most private of women – not shy but reserved. She was unusual too in that she came to fiction late, after a garlanded career as an art historian specialising in the French 18th century. She ensured that her privacy continued after her death too. She asked for no funeral and that her remains be cremated (after hospitals had received any useful organs for “therapeutic purposes”). Her will also stated that the bulk of her £2 million plus estate should go to the international medical charity Médecins sans Frontières while her literary agent Bill Hamilton (who is also Mantel’s agent) should receive any “manuscripts, letters, art books and unfinished literary material” which he wanted. The rest, however, should be destroyed. This last stipulation will dismay any would-be biographer of this most accomplished and complicated woman.