I can’t think of many people who would say, when invited to the event of their lives, “can I bring my two grownup daughters too, please?” but that was pretty much what my mum, Clare Morrall did when in 2003 she was unexpectedly shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Astonishing Splashes of Colour from a tiny imprint with a Birmingham publisher. She took us to the Booker Gala, that year held under the arches of the British Museum’s relatively funky new glass ceiling.
My sister and I promptly went to Monsoon and bought ball dresses that we’d never had an excuse to wear before. To say this was not a world we were used to would be an understatement. We had been brought up in a tiny council house and when I was in my mid-teens, my mum eventually saved up to by a 3 door fiesta so that she could pick us up from school on the evenings that she did not have to work late into the evening as a violin teacher, which she did most days.
Mum had achieved a small book deal for ‘Astonishing Splashes of Colour’ a book for which the journey to publication had been disheartening. She had nearly found and lost an agent, spending an extortionate twenty-four pounds to travel to London to meet said agent who ‘loved Mum’s book’ but appeared to decide Mum didn’t look the part and promptly returned the second draft of her novel unread. The disappointment and fury over the wasted twenty-four pounds still makes us wince.
In the end, the news of this unexpected success was discovered by me at work when my boss sat at his computer slating the newly announced Booker long-list. I went around to his desk to join the debate only to see my Mum’s name at the end of the list. Of course, I immediately phoned her to suggest she might just want to take a look at the BBC website. But then I started doubting myself and said, well maybe I’d got it wrong, so not to get her hopes up. Mum was staying at my grandmother’s, who had no internet, and hence, later on that night, they’d all decided just to double check, and went to visit some friends living nearby who did have the internet.
Mum later told me that she also thought a few times afterwards that, that maybe she’d got it wrong and should check again. In the middle of the night it crossed her mind to turn on her mobile. As the voicemails and messages flooded through, she began to realise that this might really be happening. As for me, seeing my Mum’s face on the banners of many newspaper’s headlines, the rags to riches story catching the imagination of many reports, yes, I started to believe it too.
And hence we had no socialising skills, and queued up to say hi to the journalists who had been queuing up to speak to my Mum, leaving them a little nonplussed. One elderly famous person (I have no idea who) told mum that her book had changed his life. “I can’t imagine that my books themes could have had any effect on his life,” she whispered as he left. “Do you think he says it to everybody?” We were introduced to Margaret Atwood (among others) who totally understood that this was overwhelming and cheered Mum’s book every time it was mentioned that night.
Mum didn’t win the booker prize. She didn’t want to win. We didn’t want her to win. Yes, this was a family journey. Mum was getting very anxious in case she did win and have to fly around the world at the drop of a hat. And I just didn’t think it was necessary. Being a Booker shortlisted novelist was all that she needed, for her own self-worth and for her following career.
I spent the late evening eyeing sparkling bottles of unopened Disaronno, being cleared away by the waiting staff, thinking how unjust it was that I hadn’t even had a sip of it despite it appearing on the menu. I saw one publisher pop one in her bag, and spent a lot of time worrying about whether that could be considered stealing if I were to take one too.
Astonishing Splashes of Colour, by Clare Morrall is still available!