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Recollections of the Man Booker Prize from the Director of the National Literacy Trust

Recollections of the Man Booker Prize from the Director of the National Literacy Trust

Following our announcement that the Man Booker Prize archive is on display at Oxford Brookes University, Jonathan Douglas, Director of the National Literacy Trust, shares his thoughts on the history of the Prize.

"The Man Booker Prize gets people reading not only by awarding a Prize but also by stimulating debate. And a slight whiff of intrigue hangs over the glass cases of Oxford Brookes University’s new Man Booker Prize exhibition: A letter from Joanna Lumley’s dressing room at the Theatre Royal in Brighton to Norman St Stevas, Chair of the 1985 Judges, tells him that Keri Hulme’s ‘Bone People’ would win the Booker Prize “over my dead body”. Well it did, and she survived. But her threat is one of the many hints in the exhibition of debate and intrigue.

The University’s Library houses the Man Booker Prize archive from which this new exhibition is drawn. It’s fascinating stuff!  As well as letters, and dinner seating plans, menus and correspondence between four decades of literary leaders, the exhibition contains collections of posters from the Prize, a pile of prize winning books in a reading corner and a video made for the Prize’s 40th anniversary. This exhibition is the first of a series of Man Booker Prize displays that will be hosted in the University’s new Glass Tank annex as part of its on-going exhibition programme. Next year’s theme will be Women and the Man Booker Prize.

But of course, it wasn’t always the Man Booker Prize. It started life as the Booker-McConnell Prize. The exhibition reveals some toe-curlingly awful names from which the Prize was rescued at an early stage.

I am (almost!) as old as the Prize and it was an extraordinary to see in exhibition cases books I had grown up with: Editions of Thomas Keneally  that I had memorised in my sixth form library; Hard backs of Rushdie and Penelope Fitzgerald that I remember from my parents’ bookshelves. Looking at each case I remembered where I was and who I was when I read them. For me, that’s what makes the Prize so special. I belong to a generation who has built its literary imagination with the words and stories celebrated by the Prize.

The exhibition was launched to coincide with this year’s graduation ceremonies. After having visited the exhibition, it was a fantastic honour to speak at the Literature and Modern Languages graduation ceremony and meet graduating students. It’s great that the Prize’s archive sits at the heart of a community so clearly committed to literature."