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A royal appointment

A royal appointment

The Man Booker Prize celebrated its golden anniversary on Thursday with a suitably gilded event. The Duchess of Cornwall, a key supporter of both the prize and its charitable work in schools and prisons, invited some 250 of her closest Man Booker friends to Buckingham Palace for drinks and nibbles – or rather champagne and canapés. Guests raised a glass to the prize's health in the majestic cream and gold-leaf room usually reserved for the doling out of knighthoods and other gongs. Since winning the Man Booker is the literary equivalent of being elected a member of the Order of the Garter (although admittedly there are only 24 members of that super-select order and some 32 extant Man Booker winners) the setting seemed entirely appropriate.

Among those present were no fewer than 11former Man Booker victors, ranging from V.S. Naipaul –winner in the prize's third year, 1971 – to the 2016's Paul Beatty, by way of Julian Barnes and Howard Jacobson, Eleanor Catton (fresh in from New Zealand) and double-winner Peter Carey. Mercifully perhaps, as part of Palace security, all mobile phones had been left in the cloakroom so there was no temptation to take selfies among these global heavyweights.

The fact that so many former winners made it to London is testament both to their affection for the prize and an acknowledgement of the transformative effect it had on all their careers. The occasion was memorialised by a team photo of the Man Booker winners team. They instinctively adopted poses uncannily like those of football teams at the World Cup. Should some enterprising tech geek photoshop a football into the picture the Man Booker First 11 would not look out of place in Russia. 

It's coming home for either V.S. Naipaul, Penelope Lively, Michael Ondaatje, Hilary Mantel or George Saunders. One of them will be raising a trophy of their own on Sunday evening when the winner of the Golden Man Booker Prize – the public's choice of the best Man Booker book of the past 50 years – is announced at the culminating event of the prize's 50th birthday celebratory weekend at London's South Bank.

So what is it actually like to be a Man Booker winner? The Guardian asked a swathe of them that question and came up with some revealing answers. Hilary Mantel said that on winning the prize “you wake up in a different world. . . your previous career is recast, and all your work re-evaluated – both in a marketing sense, and a literary sense”. She warned too that “It would be possible to spend years floating around the world showing off, and to become a professional winner instead of a professional writer. I imagine also that panic could strike.” Julian Barnes recalled that “My old friend Ian McEwan warned me a few days afterwards: 'By the way, you’ll find that from now on you’re no longer “the novelist Julian Barnes” – you’ve been transformed into “the Booker prize-winning novelist Julian Barnes”.' This has indeed proved the case, but it’s hardly much of a burden.” Margaret Atwood's memory of events snags on a faux pas: “I probably shouldn’t have said that my earliest literary influence was Beatrix Potter – however true – but as I wasn’t expecting to win, I had no speech prepared.” Howard Jacobson thinks “If there’s such a thing as a Man Booker experience I’ve drunk deep on it. Overlooked, infuriated, longlisted, shortlisted, victorious, overjoyed.” Anne Enright remembers a “cameraman lining up a shot on me and thought he was aiming at Ian McEwan, who was sitting over my left shoulder. When the announcement came, I expected a name, but the chairman of the judges read out the title of a book, and it took me a long second to realise that I had written this book.” Peter Carey had been a long-standing star by the time he won but “nothing in my previous life prepared me for what followed. I mean my body had known nothing like these apocalyptic flashbulbs, relentless probes, strobes, questions left, right and over there.” Pat Barker asked herself: “How do you react to your sudden (though short lived!) fame? Embrace it, wallow in it or run away from it as fast as you can? I ran. As soon as I could, I went home and settled down to being the unsuccessful author of the next book.” While Marlon James was “so convinced another book was the winner that right before the announcement I set off to the bathroom, only to be met by two near panicking members of the dinner staff who had run after me”. There's no such thing as  a Man Booker book and no such thing as a Man Booker winning experience.