Sunday, November 12, 2006

Time for Another Tiger

This behind the scenes look at how it feels to be a runner-up on award night is written for us by author Bill Keeth who was shortlisted for the Portico Prize. The fiction prize went to Val Mc Dermid, while biographer Andrew Biswell won the overall prize.


Anthony Burgess should be put out to grass, suggests Bill Keeth, whose debut novel, Every Street in Manchester, was shortlisted for this year’s Portico Literary Prize alongside Howard Jacobson’s Kalooki Nights and Val McDermid’s The Grave Tattoo

Hung over is the way I felt the morning after the night before – the night before in this instance being Wednesday 7 November, and the occasion of the Portico Prize Presentation Dinner at The Midland Hotel. Not that I’d had much more than a couple of glasses of wine, if I’m honest about it. Because I’d stuck with iced water until I realised there was no way I was going to be called upon to strut my stuff before the assembled company.

Still, I’d got off to a good start with a contingent of 10 north Manchester folk, eight of us travelling down from Middleton by minibus. So the full complement of guests at Table No. 12 consisted of myself, my wife, my publisher, and seven friends of Every Street in Manchester who have consistently lent me their support since the book was first published in the late summer of 2005.

Our sitting down to dine was auspicious too.

The wine waiter was from Malawi, which my publisher – who had attended school in Malawi – recognised immediately via his name tag, engaging him in animated conversation in his native tongue. As luck would have it too, said wine waiter was a good, cheerful, attentive lad who made us very welcome. And if truth be told, the drinks bill didn’t break the bank, even if it was a bit more hefty than we’re used to at the Embassy Club on a charity night.

The winners were announced between courses, prompting sure-fire dyspepsia! Andrew Biswell (The True Life of Anthony Burgess) was served up after the soup; Val McDermid (The Grave Tattoo), after the main course.

Melvin Burgess summarised the judges appraisal of the three shortlisted novels, and it was immediately apparent (to me, at any rate) that, beyond the remit of the De Profundis, I hadn’t a prayer. Not that Melvin over enthused about the other fiction titles – Howard Jacobson’s Kalooki Nights or Val McDermid’s The Grave Tattoo.

Even so, he deliberately sought me out afterwards – and was very complimentary, advising me “not to give up writing”. Better still, he wanted to buy a copy of my new book, Manchester Kiss. And if there is anything that pleases a writer almost as much as a literary award, it’s a paying customer.

Howard Jacobson was not in attendance, I was surprised to find – which caused an unduly cynical member of our north Manchester contingent to wonder if someone had perhaps tipped him the wink in advance.

But to accentuate the decidedly positive, the ambience of the Alexandra Suite, where the function was held, was welcoming from start to finish; the food and service first class. So it really was a great night out in lively company, with an in-house atmosphere veering towards the bubbly side of jovial. Predictably (a solitary bum note!), the room temperature was tropical hell-hole, as per UK par for the course – the thermostat seemingly under the control of an Ice Maiden coming down with a chill and bereft of Tog 3 thermal underwear, for the use of.

I made sure I told overall prize winner Dr Biswell that a review of his book is featured in a slice-of-life section of my new fiction title, Manchester Kiss.

Personally, I would not have missed the Portico Presentation Dinner for the world. I am delighted to have been invited to attend – as, indeed, I am delighted to have been shortlisted for the Portico Literary Prize in the first place – or perhaps the third. For there is no disgrace attendant upon being passed over in tandem with a writer of the calibre of Howard Jacobson.

On reflection, though, and in the clear light of another day, what does set me to thinking more seriously is the demonstrable fact that there has been no outright fiction winner of the Portico Literary Prize since 1997 – and, since 1985, there have been only three. So perhaps it’s time to re-classify the award and move on.

Perhaps, too, it’s time to move on in another sense.

A half century on from the publication of Anthony Burgess’s debut novel, Time for a Tiger [1956], the man is in need of a rest. Because it would be a very great pity, it seems to me, if the inspiration Burgess has undoubtedly provided for a generation of writers (myself included) were now to be misdirected into a staid, officially-sponsored stranglehold, as it were, upon the literary life of the north-west.

Surely this is the sort of dread prospect which the great man himself would not have hesitated to treat to a Manchester Kiss of his own devising, both vociferous and immediate – Harpurhey-raised Mancunian that he was: inveterate literary innovator and iconoclast too.

Bill Keeth’s Manchester Kiss [ISBN 1859880673] is published this week.

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