By Jean Baird | December 27, 2010

Jury: Fay Weldon, writer and staunch feminist perhaps best known for Upstairs, Downstairs. Also a BBC personality and member of the Danish Press Freedom Society, comprised mostly of anti-Muslim right-wing populists. Angela Carter, writer and feminist. Terence Kilmartin, literary editor of The Observer. Peter Porter is an Australian-born poet, living in London since 1950s and poetry critic for The Observer. Libby Purves, broadcaster and novelist.

Shortlist: Malcolm Bradbury: Rates of Exchange, Secker & Warburg; J M Coetzee: Life and Time of Michael K; John Fuller: Flying to Nowhere, Salamander; Anita Mason, The Illusionist, Hamish Hamilton; Salman Rushdie: Shame, Cape; Graham Swift: Waterland, Heinemann

Malcolm Bradbury, Rates of Exchange

This is a strange book with the uppity tone of smarmy British smugness. Professor Petworth heads off on a cultural exchange to a country behind the Iron Curtain. Petworth is “an expert on real, imaginary and symbolic exchanges among skin-bound organisms working on the linguistic interface, which is what linguists call you and me.”

In the city of Slaka, Petworth’s sense of self and reality slowly spin away. Everyone seems to be a spy, spying on him and others. You can’t trust anyone, or what they say. A major theme of the novel is language and communication, how it happens and how easily it is misinterpreted. Slaka is undergoing language reform (all nouns end in u or uu or uuu but the government has decreed that reform will now mean nouns will end in i or ii or iii). The novel is often slapstick and over-the-top, perhaps more suited to BBC television comedy than to a novel.

The novel does capture the riotous optimism of London during the Royal Wedding in the early 1980s, and the blind eye the traditional Brit pays to the substantially changed face of London.

..an England in fits of Royal Wedding. For this is the very late summer of 1981, one of the lesser years, a time of recession and unemployment, decay and deindustrialization. The age of Sado-Monetarism has begun; in the corridors of power, they are naming the money supply after motorways, M1 and M2 and M3, to try to map its mysteries better. The bombs exploded in Ulster, the factories close, but it has been a ceremonial summer; the patriotic bunting has flown, the Royal couple whose images are everywhere have walked the aisle. The nuptials, it seems have been celebrated much by foreigners come for the season to enjoy the splendour and stability of British traditions, and the collapse of the coin. Shards and fragments, chaos and Babel; so summer London has seemed to Petworth as, up from the provinces the previous night, he taxi-ed through it on the way to his hotel near Victoria. In Oxford Street, bannered and decorated, where the kerbside touts sell laurelled mugs with Royals on them and small signs that say ‘Oxford Street,’ the shoppers in the busy stores are mostly Arabs, buying twelve of everything, evidently furnishing the desert. By Buckingham Palace, the hi-tech cameras snapping the Changing of the Guard are mostly held by Japanese—reasonably enough, since their skills made them in the first place. In the lobby of the Victoria hotel, the clerk speaks only Portuguese, and that not well; burnouses are mingling with Stetsons, Hausa with Batk. In the high third-floor bedroom, no bigger than a wardrobe, where Petworth unpacks, the electric kettle which would once have been a maid offers instructions for use in six languages, one of them his. In the street, black whores in sunglasses and short tunics laugh in doorways, vibrators prod their plastic rocketry up in the sex-shop windows, and a troubled, chaotic noise of shouting people and police sirens sounds as he goes to dine on an American-style hamburger.

John Fuller Flying to Nowhere purchased.

This is a small book. 90 pages of text with big font and lots of white space. Novella at best, perhaps a lengthy short story. So, what is the minimum length for a novel?

The Abbot of a holy fountain is suspected because of the absence of graves of pilgrims who have not returned from the island abbey, and are assumed to be dead. Vane is sent to investigate. The Abbot isn’t too concerned—he is too busy wandering the endless rooms of the absurdly massive building, dissecting bodies and trying to find the location of the soul.

Once again I am reminded of Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, when flowery prose takes over and atmosphere becomes all-important.

Gweno’s voice trailed off sleepily, and by now most of the girls were sound asleep. But Tetty’s hands moved over her body as the waters against the island, wave upon wave, and they found the little bird in its nest and they too made it fly…

Gweno undid her dress, pulled it off her shoulders and let if fall to the floor, standing in its crumpled folds as clean and naked as a peeled stick. The signs of her sex stood on her innocent body like the marks of punctuation that betray meaning in an unknown language, the most common yet most secret code, the very arrows and targets of nature. And Mrs Ffederbompau sighed for the frail beauty of these indications of nature’s hopes.

On the back cover is a review from The Sunday Times: “The shape-shifting nature of its plot, and a precision of language which serves to enhance its mystery, are the chief pleasure of Flying to Nowhere. … As a lucid Gothic and tantalizing fable the book is a conspicuous success.” Gothic, for sure. The rest is poppycock.

Anita Mason The Illusionist purchased

It’s about 10 years after the death of Jesus, but the reader doesn’t find that out until about page 60. Simon is a magician of some renown and talent, including an ability to fly. His assistant and lover, the boy Demetrius, gets involved with a cult and Simon finds himself embroiled in the political power struggle of the early Christian church, particularly the ever-wandering Saul, who is out of favour with the others.

It’s a time, the narrator would have us believe, when the world is full of magicians, where illusions and miracles are commonplace. What is under debate is the source of the power. Simon believes his powers come from the study of magic. Philip and the followers of the recently crucified Jew believe their miracles come “through the power of God.”

The book is a slightly elevated version of Dan Brown’s approach. Mostly the writing is better than Brown’s, but not always. The 1983 jury clearly had a soft spot for fairy tales.

There are lots of discussions about proper rites (much of it about “to circumcise” or “not to circumcise”), what the principals of the church should be, rules—these guys are developing Christian doctrine, and Simon is the sounding post.

If there is a point, I’m not really sure what it might be. All religion goes wrong? Maybe.

He was silent for a while, drawn into his thoughts. Kepha refilled his cup with a hand slightly unsteady. ‘Why’, he murmured, ‘is the God I worship an enemy who must be fought?’

.Because,’ said Simon with a patient sigh, ‘he proclaims himself to be the only God. It is the foundation of your faith, is it not? It is the thing on which he most insists. It is a lie, Kepha. Nothing is one. Everything is two. There is no statement which does not create its own denial. But your people have not understood that, and for generation after generation you have worshipped your God as One until he has grown greedy and proclaimed that there is no Other. And this delusion has created a monstrous imblance in the world that can only be corrected by a worship of the Other. That is what I set out to do. I thought I was attempting the salvation of mankind, but I was not. .I was attempting the salvation of God…Any singleness will seek to find its shadow, its other half. And if it is thwarted…it will do a strange and terrible thing. It will not simply create its shadow. It will become it.’

But not all of Simon’s journeys for knowledge are about magic, miracles and the loftier goals. He meets and frees a prostitute who teaches him a few tricks:

‘A little more,’ he said, and then had to rein himself as she gripped him. To perform the motions of desire without yielding to desire; it was a rite.

Nearer. But he had glimpsed the goal, and as soon as he glimpsed it he felt its tug on him and his leap of response. He must surrender just so far…use the onward thrust to carry him…

Too fast again. Deliberately he lost the rhythm and made his mind drift, until he felt his pleasure becoming distant and lazy, and he roused it again with violence and thrust, and at once was lost, in the pulsing tunnels.

Oh the divine and dangerous urgency, drawing him on. Dangerous to follow, impossible not to follow now that he was sucked, pulled and driven, neither in control not out of control but one with driving pulse and the sucking current. On and on, deeper and deeper, plunging in the dark current…too dangerously now, and he pulled himself back with a groan. Then the sharp and perilous equilibrium, the longing to yield and the not yielding, the holding in check by the taut will that even now wavered and weakend—

He fought desperately to master himself, but with each moment the towering peak of his need hardened, tightened, was a mountain filled with fire that must split and spill—


Salman Rushdie Shame purchased

One day George and I spent hours roaming the Thieves’ Market in Mumbai. Another day we had Bombay gin and tonic at the Taj Mahal hotel, for a price that would pay a taxi fare from Mumbai to Calcutta. We’ve all heard stories of Untouchables, sacred cows, street hawkers, etc., but such things don’t really capture the texture of this city—the smells, the colours, the nasty air quality.

When you ask a taxi driver “Do you speak English?” the answer is always yes. Then it is a matter of negotiation whether he knows 5 words, 10 words or actually understands where you are asking to go. So you point to the map, climb in on faith, having negotiated a price and then you hope for the best. One day we were trying to get to the Gandhi museum. After several failed attempts—the system seems to be to take the fare to the obvious place in the area that tourists are expected to go, and if that isn’t right, then try the next, etc—it dawned on us that the taxi driver didn’t connect the word “Ghandi” to any specific museum. He didn’t know it existed. But eventually he found a Ghandi Street which was only two streets away. After our visit we watched a street hawker run an interloper off her territory with a lengthy verbal rant, much hand shaking, etc.

When Rushdie is at his best, it is this type of texture that he captures: his ear for language and dialogue, the gift of a storyteller, from a country where fabrication seems to be deeply ingrained. When the story and tale is spinning along, this reader is right there, immediate and engaged. But when Rushdie turns to lecturing, philosophizing, and repeating the story, my eyes glaze over.

Considering the response to The Satanic Verses, this is interesting:

I am only telling a sort of modern fairy-tale, so that’s all right’ nobody need get upset, or take anything I say too seriously. No drastic action need be taken, either.

What a relief!

And now I must stop saying what I am not writing about, because there’s nothing so special about that; every story one chooses to tell is a kind of censorship, it prevents the telling of other tales…

Graham Swift Waterland purchased

On the night George and I sailed out of Cochin India I was trying to describe this novel to some folks sitting on the back deck. In some ways it’s a cross between Thomas Hardy and Alice Munro. I thought that was a safe approach, but it wasn’t.

The couple I’m describing the novel to are Mark and Meghan, from Ottawa. He is an architect, she a graphic designer. They noticed an alarming pattern in their circle of friends—an increasing amount of time spent worrying about mortgage payments and RRSPs. “We’re not even 30; is this where we want to be?” They decided it wasn’t. They moved into Meghan’s parents’ basement, saved as much as they could for a year, sold everything except a few tools of their trades and started to travel. Oh, and they have a rule—no airplanes. That is how they found themselves on our cruise, a way to get from Europe to Asia. Both are using some of their time to read the Books They Always Intended to Read.

Mark and Meghan are bright and articulate and have good Canadian educations. Neither has read a Canadian book during their years of formal education. If there is a shared Canadian cultural experience it is To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye, McDonald’s, Tommy Hilfiger and Brad Pitt. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent on prizes, putting money into the pockets of a handful of too-conventional writers, drawing attention to a handful of books but we do not invest in the next generation of readers. Be certain I am not approaching this from a consumer viewpoint—let’s train the next generation of book buyers to buy Canadian. Sure, that would be a side benefit. But what does it say about our cultural identity when we are content to have US writers taught in our schools? But, back to the novel…

Tom Crick is a history teacher in a school that is downsizing and merging the history department with something called “general studies”. We’ve seen this topic before so I’m guessing that what the headmaster describes as the need for “practical relevance to today’s real world” which he argues justifies the elimination of history on the curriculum was part of the educational revamping of 1980s Britain. In the case of Tom Crick this educational theory allows the school the opportunity to give Tom early retirement to avoid further embarrassment over the activities of Tom’s wife.

Tom abandons the set curriculum and begins telling his students stories, the stories of his own life and family and the Fens where he grew up. Thus I’m reminded of Hardy for the ease and thoroughness with which the reader comes to know the Fens and its people. And of Munro for the sheer brilliance, with again seeming ease, of the multi-layered structure of the storytelling. Not once was I dismayed by an aside—even the wonderings about the reproductive methods of eels seemed, and was, interesting and important. There’s a puzzle to the story that Swift reveals through discussions about the nature of history and what it can teach us.

It goes in two directions at once. It goes backwards as it goes forwards. It loops. It takes detours. Do not fall into the illusion that history is a well-disciplined and unflagging column marching unswervingly into the future. Do you remember, I asked you—a riddle—how does a man move? One step forward, one step back (and sometimes one step to the side). Is this absurd? No. Because if he never took that step forward—

Crick’s discussion with his headmaster:

I thought the standard line was that the past actually had something to teach us. By learning from—‘

‘If that were so, history would be the record of inexorable progress, wouldn’t it? The future would be an ever more glowing prospect.’

Crick’s recounting of his life and learning contradict this easy “history as progress” theory. The novel argues and illustrates the guaranteed ebb and flow of life. Backdropped against the Big Picture events of war and History, Swift spins out the daily lives, the trials and tribulations of his ancestors.

What is a history teacher? He’s someone who teaches mistakes. While others say, Here’s how to do it, he says, And here’s what goes wrong. While others tell you, This is the way, this is the path, he says, And here are a few bungles, botches. Blunders and fiascos….It doesn’t work out; it’s human to err

To the surprise and some horror of the headmaster, students love the new approach. They line up to get into Crick’s class.

Compare the simple approach of the sexual passage here to the one in the novel discussed above:

…it was here that one day in August 1942 (defeat in the desert; the U-boat stranglehold) we first explored, tentatively but collaboratively, what we called simply ‘holes’ and ‘things.’

Hesitantly, but at Mary’s free invitation, I put the tip of my index finger into the mouth of Mary’s hole, and was surprised to discover what an inadequate word was ‘hole’ for what I encountered. For Mary’s hole had folds and protuberances, and, so it seemed to me, its false and its genuine entrances, and –as I found the true entrance—it revealed the power of changing its configuration and texture at my touch, of suggesting a moist labyrinth of inwardly twisting, secret passages. The dark curled hairs—only recently sprouted—between Mary’s thighs, on which at that moment broad Fen sunlight was genially smiling, had, on close inspection, a coppery sheen. I dipped one finger, up the first, the second knuckle into Mary’s hole; then a second finger alongside it. This was possible, indeed necessary, because Mary’s hole began to reveal a further power to suck, to ingest; a voracity which made me momentarily hold back. And yet the chief and most wondrous power of Mary’s hole was its capacity to send waves of sensation not only all over Mary’s body, but all over mine; and this not by some process of mental association but by a direct electric current which flowed up my arm, flushed my face, and gathered in the part of me to which Mary was simultaneously applying her hand….

Mary itched. And this itch of Mary’s was the itch of curiosity.

J. M. Coetzee Life and Times of Michael K purchased WINNER

Structured in three parts, this tightly written book follows the life of a nobody.

The first book, and the longest at 126 pages, is the view of K as he tries to return his ill mother to her birthplace, against travelling orders and curfews of a war; we are somewhere in South Africa. Enroute she dies, is cremated and K takes on the task of returning her ashes to the farm of her youth. Several times he ends up in internment camps where the attitude of those in charge “smother him.” “…he felt stupidity creep over him like a fog again.” K learns to forage, chase and kill goats and lizards, plant seeds and above all, for the most part, avoid detection. I should say that at the end of this section I wasn’t persuaded; how can someone so simple be able to trick so many people, avoid detection, etc.

In the second section of 57 pages the viewpoint switches to the doctor in the camp where K has been sent for medical treatment after he has been captured—the soldiers who find him believe he has been working the farm to feed the rebels in the mountains. The doctor and the commander of the camp are immersed in the physical needs of their patients and the grueling conditions under which they work. The doctor becomes fascinated by K, for reasons he can’t really explain, and that fascination forces him to reflect on his own involvement in the war, and why they are fighting it. He accuses the inmates of the camp of being ungrateful for the help, care and safety they are being provided.

Despite the doctor’s growing protection of K and his obsession with trying to communicate, and create in K some important symbol, a man connected to the earth, he fails to have any real understanding of K or his life.

Can you remind me why we are fighting this war? I was told once, but that was long ago and I seem to have forgotten.

‘We are fighting this war,’ Noel said, ‘so that minorities will have a say in their destinies.’

In the final 13 pages of the last book we return to K’s view, having escaped the camp and returned to the city.

Suffering caused by war, and human relations. The bookjacket says “powerful understatement” and that is the strength of the book. Sparse and thereby hard hitting. No long-winded philosophizing. Except there is the problem of the second section. Why is it there? Does Coetzee underestimate his reader?

The Coetzee novel won, but I would argue strongly for Swift.

1983 Fay Weldon from The Guardian

A lively year, as Booker prizes go. We had a distinguished set of judges and some terrific books. The panel was finally split between a Coetzee and a Rushdie – a clash of continents. As the chairperson I had the casting vote – which is not saying “oh, I like that one best”, but weighing up the arguments of one set of judges against the others and deciding which are the most convincing. The Coetzee (Life & Times of Michael K) got it, and Rushdie was really annoyed.

As a fervent feminist (25 years back), and taking time to make up my mind, I made a joke: “I haven’t got my husband here to help me decide.” But one should never make jokes in the presence of the police, security or at a Booker prize judging, and word got round that I meant it. Then I had to deliver the customary chairperson’s speech. After I sat down, the then president of the Publishers Association got to his feet, crossed the room and hit my agent Giles Gordon, second best thing to hitting me. I’d used the speech to reproach the publishers for giving such rotten deals to writers. Since the BBC was working to rule, they cut the cameras at 10pm precisely: I was using transparent screens from which to make the speech (a Thatcher trick), and they went blank before I had time to finish with the usual pacifying bit about how you are all honourable men and none of what I say applies to you. Instead, I just had to sit down and all hell broke loose.

I had actually shown the speech to the organisers earlier, but I suppose they hadn’t bothered to read it. I hadn’t thought it was all that inflammatory. Michael Caine, charismatic chairman of Bookers, came up to me years later, when I had been inadvertently invited to one of the subsequent dinners, and said: “It is not by any wish of mine you are here tonight.”

It’s all got rather dull since: the prize tends to go to well-behaved and deserving writers: no subversion allowed. No one hits anyone.

December 27, 2010  3863 words


  • Jean Baird

    Jean Baird is the co-editor, with George Bowering, of The Heart Does Break: Canadian Writers on Grief and Mourning (Random House, 2009), and the author of The Booker Project.

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