Byline: LUCY CAVENDISH
THE LAST time I saw Robert Harris was at a River Cafe quiz. I had triedto sneak my six-week-old baby into the charity quiz organised by PennyMortimer, wife of John Mortimer, and Gill Hornby, Harris's wife.
Anyone who was anyone in London life was thereAN Wilson, Daisy Goodwin, George Osborne, Craig Brown, Alan
Rusbridger. When I turn up at his rectory near Hungerford, 50-year-old Harrisclearly doesn't remember me from the quiz night, but his wife, who dashes inlooking very glamorous with neat clothes and coiffured blonde hair, says:"You're the lady with the baby, aren't you?" I don't suppose much slips pastHarris.
His grand study complete with its huge bookcases and a large ornate desk andoil paintings glaring at us is kitted out like a nerve centre. There arecomputers and microphones and an iPod with speakers and the telephone ringsconstantly.
Despite Harris's latent desire to run further into the countryside and do a bitof farming'"My one regret," he tells me later, "was that we didn't move further into thecountry and do the pig thing"he obviously loves being slapbang in the middle of a controversy.
And today, just as the Booker Prize winner is about to be announced, he'sdecided to lash out at the most famous literary prize of them all. "The BookerPrize is evil," he says. "No great authors in the past, from Dickens through toKipling, Waugh, Joyce, Orwell etc would have had anything to do with it.
"The Booker casts a long shadow over literary life. It has swollen like amonstrous boil obscuring anything that was ever good about it. It encouragesand fosters the difference between supposed 'literary' novels and otherperfectly good books. It reveres a certain type of novel yet great writers ofthe world may never have featured in it and lots of books that are short-listedin it disappear without a trace." But why is Harris speaking out against aworld he is so mired in? For wherever you start in London literary society youend up with Robert Harris. He snugly fits into a place where journalism ends(he used to be a journalist) and novelwriting starts. His books somehowtranscend definition. Since 1993 he has written clever page-turning massmarketfictionbooks such as Fatherland, Pompeii, Enigmathat sell by the truckload, more than 10 million copies between them and yet heis considered a highbrow sort of a man.
His agent is the legendary Pat Kavanagh, who is married to the author JulianBarnes. His wife is Gill Hornby, sister of Nick Hornby. His film agent is themassively powerful Anthony Jones.
His friends include Jeremy Paxman, Peter Mandelson and Tory MP Andrew Mitchell.He used to be pretty close to the Blairs until they fell out over the secondsacking of Peter Mandelson, an act Harris spoke out against as being "a brutalact committed with extraordinary indifference".
Yet Harris says he wants to speak out against the Booker because he feels sostrongly about it. "I can see it probably looks a bit dog-in-the-manger asthere is no conceivable way I would ever win it, or should win it," he says,"but that's not why I am saying this. The Booker ruins people's lives. It doesa disservice to the public and it is damaging to authors and the industry,especially this hateful, ghastly long list. Authors feel their book has failedeven before it's been published if it is not selected. They are forced byagents and publicists to write a 'Booker-winning' novel when most of thosenovels are grim and unreadable and utterly off-putting for many readers." HESAYS that when the prize first started it was probably to help bring the workof not so well known authors into the public realm. "I can see for a book likeYann Martel's Life of Pi it is a good thing, but over the past five or so yearsthe judges have kowtowed to the worst sort of political correctness. It's hardto think of anyone who is non-PC or doesn't deal with the concerns of thesexual minority or colonial guilt who could possibly make it on to the list. …