The Guardian from London, Greater London, England on September 2, 1999 · 39
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The Guardian from London, Greater London, England · 39

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London, Greater London, England
Issue Date:
Thursday, September 2, 1999
Page:
39
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The Guardian Thursday September 2 1999 9 Bit wasmrft dud Squeaky-clean judge John Sutherland denies all knowledge of the Booker Prize leak 1 Nf. I, Colonel William Friedman, the dominant figure in American codebreak-ing during the first half of the 20th century. While he was in charge of the Signal Intelligence Service, he made the Beale ciphers part of the training programme, because he believed the ciphers to be of "diabolical ingenuity, specifically designed to lure the unwary reader". The Friedman Archive, established after his death in 1969, is frequently consulted by military historians, but by far the largest number of visitors are Beale devotees. ore recently, one ofthe leadingfig-ures has been Carl Hammer, retired director of computer sci ence at Sperry Univac and one ofthe pioneers of computerised code-breaking. According to Hammer, the Beale ciphers have occupied "at least 10 of the best cryptanalytic minds in the country. And not a dime of this effort should be begrudged. The work - even the lines that have led into blind alleys - has more than paid for itself in advancing and refining computer research." The lack of success means that we cannot exclude the-possibility that the 'J wsl Beale ciphers are an elaborate hoax. Sceptics have searched for inconsistencies in the Beale story. For example, the letter enclosed in the box with the ciphers was supposedly written in 1822, but it contains the word stampede, which was not seen in print until 1844. However, it is possible that the word was in common usage in the wild west at an earlier date. Evidence in favour of the probity of the ciphers comes from historical research, which can be used to verify the story of Thomas Beale. Peter Viemeister, a local historian who showed me some ofthe places where treasure hunters have already looked, searched for evidence to prove that Beale existed. Using the census of 1790 and other documents, Viemeister has identified several Thomas Beales, who were born in Virginia and whose backgrounds fit the known facts. Most ofthe details concern Beale's trip to Sante Fe, and there is evidence to corroborate his discovery of gold. For example, Jacob Fowler, who explored the American southwest in 1821-22, noted in his journal that the Pawnee and Crowe tribes "speake on the most friendly terms of the White men and Say they are about 35 in number" - this number is similar to the size of Beale's party. Also, there is a Cheyenne leg- ILLUSTRATI0N:MATTKENYON end dating from around 1820 which tells of gold and silver being taken from the west and buried in eastern mountains. Consequently, the tale ofthe Beale ciphers continues to enthral codebreakers and treasure hunters. However, anybody who might be tempted to take up the challenge of the Beale ciphers should take heed of some words of caution given by the author of the pamphlet: "Before giving the papers to the public, I would give them a little advice, acquired by bitter experience. It is, to devote only such time as can be spared from your legitimate business to the task, and if you can spare no time, let the matter alone . . . Never, as I have done, sacrifice your own and your family's interests to what may prove an illusion; but, as I have already said, when your day's work is done, and you are comfortably seated by your good fire, a short time devoted to the subject can injure no one, and may bring its reward." Simon Singh is the author of The Code Book - The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography, published today by Fourth Estate at 1 6.99. It contains its own challenge, with a reward of 1 0,000 for the first reader to crack the code. To order your own copy at a special discount price of 1 2.99 plus 99p p&p, call the Guardian CultureShopon 0500600102. 1 2.30pm on Tuesday, the Booker Committee broke up kafter an excellent lunch at the Savile Club. It was an affable occasion, marred only perhaps by Martyn Goff s mild chagrin that so little of his excellently chosen wine had been drunk. There was general agreement that the proceedings, and particularly the contents of what is called the "long list", be kept confidential. The short list would be publicised at the end of September. A college of cardinals could not have been more unanimous on the paramount importance of secrecy. So it was mildly surprising to find the early editions of yesterday's London Evening Standard carrying this item in its Londoner's Diary page: Brookner and Rushdie Make Booker List. The Londoner, as the paper's diarist styles himself, claimed to have "unearthed" the list. The Londoner seemed, like Joe McCarthy, to have a piece of paper in his hand (no "unimpeachable source" nonsense). He also seemed oddly certain about the unusual length of the long list. And how did he know when the meeting had taken place? According to this pseudo-list Vikram Scth and Rushdie were said to be front-runners; Anita Brookner and Roddy Doyle (previous winners) were said to be in the hunt. The piece ended with the malicious sting that Lord Bragg, "the New Labour arts guru", had failed to qualify with The Soldier's Return "despite the fact that fellow Labour Party arty type, Gerald Kaufman, is chairman of this year's panel". First things first: I didn't do it. And, on pain of having my tongue pulled out, I wouldn't confirm or refute any part ofthe pseudo-list. Perhaps the whole thing was itself one ofthe best works of fiction produced this year. Time will tell whether the Londoner was well informed. An anarchic part of me would be very happy if Bragg won the Booker, the Nobel, and the man ofthe match award at next year's cup final. What the "pseudo-leak" episode revealsris the contradiction built into the Booker Prize process. On my side, it is a judicial process. One tries to be fair. On their side, the publishing industry sees it as a publicity machine. Screw fair. The prize sells novels, tons of novels. There is, by now, a large segment of the British public that organises its annual fiction diet around the Booker finalists. It is to fiction what Ex-Lax is to constipation. It is partly to placate business interests, I suspect, that the management committee (which runs the show) invites so many contenders. Publishers like to tell authors, "We love your novel -we're putting it up for the Booker." Publishers, agents, and the novelists themselves see the prize as nothing more than a lottery. The more tickets you have, the better the chance of winning. The result ' is that I have a splitting headache and notes on 134 works of British fiction. My colleagues, I discover, have notes on 129, which means -I suspect - that I must have read five novels twice. After about 90, I would have difficulty knowing. I have already been chalked off by Martyn Goff for suggesting that it might herniate the sensibility somewhat to read three novels a day, five days a week throughout a summer. But clearly the publishing industry would be much less warm s S'- L It could be you . . .Vikram Seth to a prize in which only 30 or so titles were admissible. In truth, no one will be terribly exercised about yesterday's leak. Publicity, even bad publicity, is good for the Booker. What kills prizes is indifference. Can you name one James Tait Black winner? It's the most venerable fiction prize in Britain. It is run, from Edinburgh University, with exemplary discretion and intellectual scrupulousness. And the prize does sweet Fanny Adams for the sale of books (I speak as a former judge). This year's Booker process has been, as such things go, uneventful. Which brings us to the administrator, Martyn Goff. Goff 's career over the last 50 (yes 50) years has been devoted to one end: making the British public buy good books. It's hard to think of a more thankless task; a Jesuit missionary in 16th-century China would have had it easier. And yet, through various agencies (principally the National Book League), Goff has succeeded. The British, as a people, read more good novels than they did 30 years ago and that is largely down to Martyn Goff. He deserves a statue in the new Borders bookshop. But one of the ways Goff has promoted fiction is by the manipulation of news. Already I've heard from two people: "It's Martyn, he always leaks when he thinks things are going quiet." I don't believe it. I really don't. And don't believe everything you read in Londoner's Diary.

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