- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 13, 2003

The great and the good (and the slightly seedy) gathered in Soho last week for one of the more frivolous events in the book lover’s calendar: the presentation of this year’s Bad Sex Award. Launched a decade ago by Auberon Waugh, the late editor of the Literary Review, the prize is supposed to function as a name-and-shame deterrent against writers who turn out “redundant or embarrassing descriptions of the sexual act in modern novels.”

As you can imagine, the judges always have a daunting selection of candidates to sort through. Salman Rushdie is among the luminaries who have carried off the dubious accolade. This year’s winner, the Indian journalist and author Aniruddha Bahal, lived up to the lofty standards of the past with an extract from his debut novel, “Bunker 13.”

If Ernest Hemingway could view hunting as a metaphor for the travails of love, Mr. Bahal prefers to speak of physical ardor in the language of off-road motoring. In his imaginary world, the ideal lover sounds like a particularly noisy SUV:

“She is topping up your engine oil for the cross-country coming up; your RPM is hitting a new high; to wait any longer would be to lose prime time. She picks up a Bugatti’s momentum — you want her more at a Volkswagen’s steady trot. Squeeze the maximum mileage out of your gallon of gas, but she’s eating up the road with all cylinders blazing.”

Just the thing, I think you will agree, to set the temperature gauge soaring. But why should bad sex have all the glory? Why not have a Bad Politics Award too, simply as a way of honoring all those distinguished members of the local literati who have made fools of themselves in the past year?

My nominees would have to include the organizers of the British Book Awards, who bizarrely chose “Stupid White Men” as their book of the year, in preference to Antony Beevor’s entry “Berlin: The Downfall.” (Michael Moore, who has been virtually adopted as an honorary Brit, deserves a special trophy all of his own. No author, with the possible exceptions of Nostradamus and L. Ron Hubbard, has done quite as much to stem the spread of enlightened debate around the world.)

One late contender is the thriller writer John le Carre, who took to the BBC’s airwaves last week to promote his new novel “Absolute Friends” and soon launched into a frenzied attack on the United States as a rogue hyperpower intent on laying waste to civilization.

It’s some consolation that “Absolute Friends” has won very mixed reviews. As one critic observed: “There has been a strain of Anti-Americanism in Le Carre’s fiction at least since ‘The Honorable Schoolboy’ (1977), but here it reaches a new pitch.” Another reviewer, more bluntly, wondered if Mr. le Carre had farmed out the writing of the manuscript to ultra-left reporter John Pilger.

Mr. le Carre can huff and puff as much as he likes; he still runs a poor second to the author who embodies metropolitan elite opinion at its most grotesquely self-satisfied. Step forward, Harold Pinter, a figure who used to be an artist but now makes a living as a singularly lugubrious cheerleader for the Chomsky crowd.

The author made his initial bid for the Bad Politics Award back in January when he published “God Bless America,” a poem denouncing the prospect of a war against Iraq. You can gain a full sense of its worldly sophistication from the opening lines: “Here they go again, / The Yanks in their armoured parade / Chanting their ballads of joy / As they gallop across the big world / Praising America’s God.”

In the months after Saddam’s statue was toppled, Mr. Pinter returned to the fray, this time during a public appearance in London. In case anyone had missed the subtle message of his verse, he offered his London audience an equally profound analysis of American foreign policy:

“The U.S. is really beyond reason now. It is beyond our imagining to know what they are going to do next and what they are prepared to do. There is only one comparison: Nazi Germany. Nazi Germany wanted total domination of Europe and they nearly did it. The U.S. wants total domination of the world and is about to consolidate that.”

Always ready to take on fresh challenges, Mr. Pinter soon turned his attention to the epistolary form. In the days before George W. Bush arrived on his state visit to London, Britain’s greatest living ex-playwright fired off a typically crushing open letter to the war-criminal-in-chief:

“Dear President Bush, I’m sure you’ll be having a nice little tea party with your fellow war criminal, Tony Blair. Please wash the cucumber sandwiches down with a glass of blood, with my compliments.”

Such poise, such understatement. I don’t suppose President Bush ever got round to reading this epistle, but if he had he would surely have been shamed into calling off his trip. I therefore declare Harold Pinter undisputed winner of the Bad Politics Award. He is, in fact, so far ahead of the crowd that I have decided he will be ineligible for next year’s contest.

New talent deserves a chance, and there are plenty of hopefuls waiting for their opportunity to shine. If George Bush wins re-election in 2004, and Iraq becomes a free and stable nation, the standard of entries should be very high indeed: These setbacks always bring out the worst in our literati. In the interests of balance, I also hope to have some nominations from right-wing sources next year.

First of all, though, I will have to find some right-wing writers. There must be a few somewhere.

Clive Davis writes for the London Times.


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