Novelist Joan Brady is outraged. So much so she felt compelled to share her indignation with Guardian readers:
In 1993 I became the first woman to win the Whitbread Prize, and it changed my life. Money! One winner blew it all on a swimming pool for the family’s French villa. Not me. Mine paid off my debts: there are few joys in life to beat clearing the slate.
Yes, I know. Bear with me. The outrage is coming.
I suppose I should have given some thought to where the money came from. I didn’t.
What, pray, was the source of this dirty, dirty money that freed Ms Brady from debt? A company that promotes cock fighting, orphan hunts or live kitten peeling?
The shortlist was awarded at the Whitbread brewery – which meant I could hardly avoid knowing it had something to do with beer – but how was I to know that Whitbread saw the whole excitement as just an advertising gimmick?
Yes, trembling readers. A brewery chain. And in return for their chunk of cash Whitbread hoped for some… publicity. The fiends. Brewery chains, it seems, don’t in fact exist solely for the benefit of Guardian-reading novelists. And it gets worse.
I didn’t learn the truth until a few years ago, when a transformation took place in some distant boardroom. Whitbread, a vast multinational corporation,
had just acquired the coffee business set up in Lambeth by Bruno and Sergio Costa, and with pubs declining, coffee looked like the future of the hospitality business.
Beer and coffee. And hospitality. Will the depravities never end? No wonder Ms Brady feels morally soiled.
Literature is supposed to be independent...
Of what, economics? Isn’t winning a large cash prize - say, around £30,000 - a way to be independent, to write more books – and to pay off one’s debts?
It’s supposed to be a statement of an individual view of the world, not a corporate tactic… Costa is strong-arming its multinational way into small towns and villages all over Britain.
Yes, even in Totnes, Devon, where, Ms Brady tells us, not everyone is happy about the new arrivals. Especially, and unsurprisingly, other coffee shop proprietors.
Corporate juggernauts mowing down local communities is a part of modern life. Powerful, ubiquitous international brands that are convenient and familiar but dull as hell: that same smell, that same taste, that same plasticky look and feel. This kind of commerce has nothing to do with the lives of people except to chew them up and spit them out.
They’re selling coffee, remember. Which people choose to buy, having walked in voluntarily. So far as I’m aware, Costa doesn’t employ press gangs of burly men to prowl the streets in search of coffee-drinking prey, while armed with clubs, tasers and heavy nets.
A literary prize is just camouflage, and that’s wrong.
Aren’t most of these “corporate juggernaut” coffee shops actually run as a franchise, i.e., as a small local business, albeit with a big name? And if the Costa coffee chain is so morally offensive and if its products and ambience are so self-evidently ghastly, surely all those discerning punters will drink and snack elsewhere? Say, in the shops of the aforementioned rival proprietors? Won’t locals vote decisively with their feet and debit cards, as is generally the custom? Unless of course the fuss being made doesn’t actually reflect all local opinion, but merely a subset of it. Ms Brady doesn’t say. She does, however, conclude:
Why does Great Britain have to sell its literature under a brand name in the first place? Don’t UK writers deserve national recognition, too?
Acknowledgement by the state (i.e., at the taxpayer’s expense) being so much more elevated than mere commercial recognition. Corporations, see, are wicked. They chew us up and spit us out, and how could anyone with a soul want to be part of that - especially an artist like Joan Brady, for whom purity is everything? Of course, this being the Guardian, Ms Brady’s display of indignation is just a tad selective. Despite the author’s outrage, I somehow doubt that Whitbread will be getting their prize money back. I think we can also assume that our morally lofty wordsmith won’t be withdrawing her novels from Waterstones and Amazon, both of which have no doubt aroused very similar umbrage from many small booksellers. And it’s perhaps worth noting that Ms Brady’s latest novel, The Blue Death, is published by Simon & Schuster, an imposing division of that even more imposing multinational corporation, CBS.
If you feel inclined to make a donation I shan’t feel dirty.