Booker Prize

P.H. Newby won the first Booker Prize in April 1969 for Something to Answer For. The other shortlisted novels were Barry England’s Figures in a Landscape, Nicholas Mosley’s The Impossible Object, Iris Murdoch’s The Nice and the Good, Muriel Spark’s The Public Image, and Gordon Williams’ From Scenes Like These.

The prize was awarded at a ceremony at Drapers’ Hall, where Newby was presented with the cheque for £5,000:

Newby was also given a trophy designed by the Polish-British children’s author and illustrator Jan Pieńkowski. This trophy was given to the winner in the first four years of the prize. In 1973 a new, smaller version of the trophy was created by Patricia Turner who scaled it down from its original height of 24.5″ to 10″.

Dimensions: 6” wide at base, 8” at bowl, 24.5” tall. Cast in resin, with a metal base.

Newby’s wife, Joan, spray-painted the trophy gold. It was kept by the front door, and used to hold keys (photograph shows the original silver colour, where the gold paint has been scratched off over time).

The Booker Prize was announced in 1968: £5,000 for the best novel written by a writer “born in Britain, the Commonwealth, Republic of Ireland, and South Africa.”

Sir Frank Kermode recalled the decision to award Newby with the prize:

“The first judges were Rebecca West, Stephen Spender, David Farrer and WL Webb, at that time literary editor of The Guardian. We were handsomely treated: in London we haunted Bertorelli’s, but we spent more than one weekend at Michael Astor’s beautiful Cotswold house, where Dame Rebecca strode the grounds authoritatively between bouts of laying down the law. There were perhaps 60 books, which seemed a lot, though modern judges are said to read twice as many. Getting through the 60 was made easier by our not daring to take on Dame Rebecca. ‘Miss Murdoch writes good and bad novels in alternate years,’ she said. ‘This is a bad year.’ Muriel Spark: ‘clever but too playful.’ And out they went.

Two of us favoured Nicholas Mosley’s Impossible Object, but were soon silenced. The choice of PH Newby’s Something to Answer For was the result of a compromise. Dame Rebecca didn’t dislike it as much as nearly all the others. Surveyors of the prize’s history have spoken ill of this good book, perhaps without reading it, or by being too ready to suppose that this industrious writer could manage a novel a year as well as running the Third Programme. Anyway, I remember this, my one experience of judging, with much pleasure and amusement.”

Dame Rebecca West’s personal notes on the shortlist, held at the Booker Prize Archive held at Oxford Brookes University, reveals both her admiration and hesitancy:

I admire some of this man’s work so much that I cannot bear to admit that I cannot make out what this book is about, either. I suspect Grahamgreenery and a bogus Christ-schlemihl. But I enjoyed reading it page by page.

A video history of the Booker Prize made for the 40th anniversary, including a short remark by Newby, can be watched below:

Newby was interviewed in Release, BBC Two, 19 April, 1969, a week before he was announced as the winner of the Booker Prize:

The BBC Four documentary “Barneys, Books and Bust-Ups: 50 Years of the Booker Prize,” featuring P.H. Newby and memories of the event by his two daughters, was released on 15 October, 2018.

In 2019, the daughter of P.H. Newby shared her memories of the first Booker Prize ceremony and the effects the prize had on the family.

Something to Answer For

It was 1956 and he was in Port Said. About these two facts Townrow was reasonably certain. He had been summoned there, to Egypt, by the widow of his deceased friend, Elie Khoury. Having been found dead in the street, she is convinced he was murdered, but nobody seems to agree with her. What of Leah Strauss, the mistress? And of the invading British paratroops? Only an Englishman, surely, would take for granted that the British would have behaved themselves. In this weirdly disorientating world, Townrow is forced towards a re-examination of the basic rules by which he has been living his life; and into a realization that he too may have something to answer for.

Something to Answer For, by P.H. Newby

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