Book ReviewsBritish authors

The first #Bookerprize winner: P H Newby

Portrait photograph of P H Newby winner of the first Booker Prize

All I knew about PH Newby when I began reading Something to Answer For,  was that he was the first winner of the Booker Prize in 1969.

The short biography on the Booker site didn’t enlighten me much further since it contained just the bare facts: born 1918 in Crowborough, Sussex, Newby was a private in a Medical Corps Unit during World War 2 and served first in France and then in Egypt. 

After his release from active duty in December 1942, he taught English Literature at Fouad 1st University, Cairo. When his first novel, A Journey into the Interior(1946) was published, he returned to England.  He joined the BBC in 1949, beginning as a radio producer and going on to become successively Controller of the Third Programme and Radio Three, Director of Programmes (Radio), and finally Managing Director, BBC Radio before his retirement in 1978. He was awarded  a CBE for his work as Managing Director of BBC Radio.

Despite what most people would have considered a demanding job, he was a prolific writer, at one time producing a new book every year. His rate of output apparently was one of the reasons why other writers dismissed him as a second rate artist. Literature was meant to be crafted slowly and painstakingly in the mode of Flaubert, not rattled out like a production factory, they sniffed. Little wonder that Graham Greene called Newby  A fine writer who has never had the full recognition he deserves. ” 

It was left to Newby’s friend, Anthony Thwaite to delve beneath the surface and to disclose something of the man’s character.  In an insightful – and touching – obituary, Thwaite called Newby “One of the best English novelists of the second half of the century”

Thwaite recalled their early encounters which began in 1954,when Newby was already an established figure in the literary circles at the BBC and Thwaite was an Oxford undergraduate. Later the two became colleagues at the BBC.

” I was always aware of two things: his quiet, precise defence of high standards, and his equally quiet, precise caution,” said Thwaite. “Some of my colleagues put too much emphasis on the second of these in Newby, as if he were some sort of inhuman litmus placed between anything new and the noisy condemnatory world out there beyond the microphone. I never found this so. I found he was a man with whom one could equably discuss heterodox things; and he could give way.”

According to Thwaite, 1942 was a turning-point in Newby’s life. He was seconded by the Army to be a lecturer in English literature at Fuad 1st University, and remained there until 1946. He drew on that experience of Egypt  intermittently for the rest of his life. The extravagances of Arabic-English, in which volatile feelings and a relish for rhetoric combine, fascinated him. ‘Everything was extreme, and he quietly revelled in the extremities,’ commented Thwaite.

Egypt was the backdrop for many of his books even in his later years, against which he played out his characteristic theme of  the discovery of a man’s self through a journey or quest that he forces himself, or is forced, to take.

Footnotes – added February 2017


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

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