Ladies and Gentlemen, this the sixth time I have been invited to attend this wonderful occasion and can I begin by saying how happy I am to be here - and in such distinguished company too. We are meeting this year on the sixteenth of October, as it happens, the birthday of Oscar Wilde.
I have a slight connection with Oscar Wilde in that my great-great-grandfather, Alec Shand, a published author himself, was secretly engaged for a time to Constance Lloyd - who went on to marry Oscar Wilde.
Now, I like to think that, had the Man Booker Prize been around in 1890, Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, might well have been a contender. It has many of the imaginative, disruptive and challenging elements that I know this year’s panel of judges were looking out for. And famously, if controversially, in his preface to Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde wrote: ‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.’
Well, for fifty years now this unique prize, embraces the English language ‘in all its vigour, it’s vitality, it’s versatility and its glory.’
I’m here, not as a writer, of course, but as a reader - and, as we know, writers do need readers. As Will Rogers said, ‘We can’t all be heroes, because somebody has to sit on the kerb and clap as they go by.’ For over half a century the Man Booker Prize has done a wonderful job introducing remarkable writers to new readers and I’m here, sitting on the kerb, applauding as a grateful reader of many of the novels that have featured in the prize list that I (and millions of others) wouldn’t have discovered if it hadn’t been for the Man Booker.
I’m also here as the new Patron of the Royal Society of Literature, the Patron of the National Literacy Trust and a number of other charities which encourage literacy and a love of language. That’s why I would like to salute the Booker Prize Foundation for the funding it provides for the National Literacy Trust for the Books Unlocked scheme, which gives prisoners and young offenders the opportunity to read and discuss shortlisted titles; as well as to the Royal National Institute of Blind People to ensure that Braille, giant print and audio versions of the shortlisted books are available for young people who are visually impaired.
So, congratulations to the Foundation on the work they do - and thanks, once again, to the Man Group for their continuing sponsorship of the prize.
It’s been another challenging year for the judges, but under Kwame Anthony Appiah’s leadership, they’ve clearly risen to it, coming up with an exciting shortlist that featured two debut novels, the youngest author ever to make the final cut, and a list dominated by women. Yes, despite what you read in the newspapers, some things in this world are moving in the right direction.
Congratulations to the shortlisted authors - and thank you for writing your books. Congratulations, too, to their publishers - thank you for bringing us such a variety of books to enjoy. Congratulations, in fact, to everyone involved in the process - the editors, the proof-readers, the printers, the binders. I’m a little old-fashioned, I confess. I do like a real book - with pages I can turn and feel and smell. Let’s also congratulate the literary agents. As the actor Sir Ralph Richardson said when asked if he had a message for his agent: ‘Do send him ten percent of my love.’
I will end with one last quote from Oscar - I feel I can call him Oscar since we were almost related. ‘With freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy?’
Thank you to everybody involved in the Man Booker Prize for the books you have given us over the past fifty years. Thank you.