Shock ending: how the Costa book awards changed reading – and pitted husband against wife

After 50 years, the prize has been scrapped. How did it change Britain’s literary landscape? And what happened at the awards when Margaret Drabble was seated next to Theresa May?

Margaret Drabble was a bright young star with five novels to her name in 1971, when she was talked into joining her old friend JB Priestley on the judging panel for a new book prize. “Jack told me that I should spend the fee (which came in wine) by choosing some very nice half-bottles to drink by myself, which I did,” she recalls.

Drabble argued for a biography of the playwright Henrik Ibsen, Priestley was keen on a novel by Gerda Charles, and their fellow judge, the critic Anthony Thwaite, championed a poetry collection by Geoffrey Hill. The glory of the new, brewery-sponsored awards was that all three could have prizes, so it all went swimmingly, with none of the squabbles that had already begun to bedevil the Booker, launched two years earlier. These arguments had included one over the literary quality of a certain Margaret Drabble, who (according to Booker judge Dame Rebecca West) would insist on lowering the tone by writing about the washing-up.

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