It is a huge pleasure to be with you this evening, albeit in a disembodied form, to mark the 52nd Booker Prize.
Many years ago, in my long lost youth, one of my favourite books was National Velvet, written by the formidable Enid Bagnold. In later life, Enid was asked why she had chosen to become an author, and I wondered if her reply might resonate with some of you.
Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything…It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain… to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.
“To make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus”. For many people, this year has been a bit of a cactus (if the cactus-lovers among you will forgive me). But, as Enid says, writers have the power to turn a cactus into a great flower. While Covid deprived us of so many cultural pleasures – live music, theatre, cinema, art galleries, even being together in the flesh this evening – we have, at least, been able to read. And as long as we can read, we can travel, we can escape, we can explore, we can laugh, we can cry and we can grapple with life’s mysteries.
Through reading, we can also find community. This year, as book sales have vastly increased, so online book clubs have flourished and booklovers have been forging new connections with one other. Ben Okri described this perfectly in his “Poem for the Booker Prize” last year as:
The infinite space
Of our collective reading souls”
For all these reasons, this year’s Booker Prize is even more important than usual. It provides an opportunity to reflect on the richness of English-language literature. It allows us to give thanks for the transformative power of books, which change cacti into flowers. It demonstrates the vastness, and closeness, of the literary community. Above all, it celebrates wonderful writers who share their gifts to strengthen, provoke, move and comfort their readers. Congratulations to the shortlisted authors – and thank you. Thank you, too, to the Prize’s sponsor, Crankstart, for your generosity in making this year’s Booker Prize possible. And thank you to the Booker Prize Foundation for all you do to support literature through promoting literacy.
Ladies and gentlemen, we will very shortly find out the name of the winner. In the meantime, let me leave you with a second quote from Enid Bagnold, which applies to both the writers and the readers among us:
If I had my life over again, I’d have thought more about words. And thought about them earlier.