One of the most acrimonious run-ups to the Man Booker Prize in recent years had a happy ending as British novelist Julian Barnes was on Tuesday declared the unanimous winner of this year's £50,000 prize for his novella, “The Sense of an Ending'', hailed as an “exquisite'' meditation on growing old, the nature of memory and relationships.

The choice was applauded across the literary divide though the judges still appeared to be smarting from the attacks they had endured in recent weeks as their selection for the shortlist had drawn accusations of “dumbing down''.

Announcing the prize at a high-profile champagne-soaked gathering of literary celebrities in London, the chair of the jury, Stella Rimington, better known as a former head of MI5, drily observed: "I can tell you there was no blood on the carpet and nobody went off in a huff."

Mr Barnes, who had been shortlisted three times before without ever winning the prize, said he was ``relieved'' that he had finally got it.

``I am as much relieved as I am delighted,'' said the 65-year-old novelist comparing himself to the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, who liked to joke that in Sweden there was ``a small cottage industry solely devoted to not giving Borges the Nobel Prize''.

``At times over the last years, in occasional moments of mild paranoia, I have wondered whether there wasn't some similar sister organisation operating here,” Mr Barnes said.

He laughed away his famous description of the Booker Prize as ``posh bingo'' saying that ``when you finally win, you realise that the judges are the wisest heads in literary Christendom”.

One of Britain's most admired novelists, Mr Barnes had been the favourite of bookies and critics alike. At 150 pages, ``The Sense of an Ending'', is his shortest novel but the record for the shortest book ever to win a Booker remains Penelope Fitzgerald's ``Offshore'' which won in 1979.

The judges said ``The Sense of an Ending'' was "exquisitely written, subtly plotted and reveals new depths with each reading".

"We thought it was a book that spoke to the humankind in the 21st Century. One of the things the book does is talk about humankind: none of us really know who we are - we present ourselves in all sorts of ways," said Ms Rimington.

While thanking the judges for their ``wisdom'' and the Booker sponsors for ``their cheque'', Mr Barnes had a special word for the book's designer, Suzanne Dean:

"Those of you who've seen my book - whatever you may think of its contents - will probably agree that it is a beautiful object. And if the physical book, as we've come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the e-book, it has to look like something worth buying and worth keeping."

The other contenders were : Carol Birch (``Jamrach's Menagerie''); Patrick deWitt (``The Sisters Brothers''), Esi Edugyan (``Half Blood Blues''); and debut authors Stephen Kelman (``Pigeon English'') and AD Miller (``Snowdrops'').

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