2016 Biographers’ Club Prize Winners Announced

Hisham Matar won the Slightly Foxed Best First Biography Prize, Sarah Watling won the Tony Lothian Prize, and Hilary Spurling received the Lifetime Services to Biography award at the Biographers’ Club Prize Dinner, held yesterday (15 November) at the Savile Club in London.

(Left to right) Gail Pirkis of Slightly Foxed, Biographers' Club Chair Anne de Courcy, and Isabel Wall of Viking, who accepted the Best First Biography prize on behalf of Hisham Matar

(Left to right) Gail Pirkis of Slightly Foxed, Biographers’ Club Chair Anne de Courcy, and Isabel Wall of Viking, who accepted the Best First Biography prize on behalf of Hisham Matar

Matar took the Slightly Foxed Best First Biography Prize (£3,500) with The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between (Viking). The book records Matar’s journey in seach of his father, who had been imprisoned in Colonel Gadaffi’s Libya 22 years earlier, when Matar was 19. For the judges, Flora Fraser commented: “Matar’s The Return tells in poignant and exquisite detail of loss and reclamation following his father’s imprisonment in Gaddafi’s Libya. Masterly.” Fraser’s fellow judges were Richard Davenport-Hines and Ysenda Maxtone Graham.

Among the three other titles on the Prize shortlist was East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity by Philippe Sands (Weidenfeld), who elsewhere in London yesterday evening was receiving the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction – for which Matar was also shortlisted. The Best First Biography shortlist was completed by David Aaronovitch’s Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists (Cape), David Hare’s The Blue Touch Paper (Faber) and Juliet Nicolson’s A House Full of Daughters (Chatto).

 Tony Lothian Prize winner Sarah Watling (left) with Lifetime Services to Biography winner Hilary Spurling


Tony Lothian Prize winner Sarah Watling (left) with Lifetime Services to Biography winner Hilary Spurling

The £2,000 Tony Lothian Prize, for a proposal for an uncommissioned biography, went to Sarah Watling for Noble Savages. Watling’s book will be a portrait of the four Olivier sisters: Margery, Brynhild, Daphne and Noel, daughters of the Fabian Sir Sydney Olivier, Governor of Jamaica. At Cambridge, all four were introduced to Rupert Brooke, and formed the Neo Pagan group. The youngest, Noel, would prove the love of Brooke’s life, and joined the tiny minority of female doctors before the First World War. Her sister Daphne became a pioneering educationalist who set up Britain’s first Steiner school. It is a story that straddles the colonial leisure of the Caribbean, the bucolic life of Victorian progressives, the frantic optimism of Edwardian Cambridge, the bleakness of war, the creativity and intrigues of the Bloomsbury Group, and a host of evolving philosophies for life over the course of the 20th century.

The judges were biographer and academic Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, Susie Dowdall of the Daily Mail, and author Peter Stanford.

The 2015 Tony Lothian Prize winner, Square Haunting by Francesca Wade, went on to secure a publishing deal with Faber.

Hilary Spurling is the 2016 recipient of the Lifetime Services to Biography award, among the past winners of which are Michael Holroyd, Richard Holmes, Claire Tomalin, Selina Hastings and, in 2015, John Julius Norwich. Spurling’s subjects have included Paul Scott, Henri Matisse, and Pearl Buck; she is at work on a life of Anthony Powell. Her biography Matisse the Master won the 2005 Whitbread (now Costa) Book of the Year.

 


 

Though he could not be present in person, Hisham Matar accepted his prize with the following speech:

Good evening. I’m sorry I’m not able to be with you in person. 
 
I would, before anything, like to express my appreciation to my fellow shipmates, David Aaronovitch, David Hare, Juliet Nicolson and Philippe Sands. I thank you for your books, and I am honoured to be included in your company.
 
Every book arises from conversations with the consciousness of our culture and our history, and, in my case and particularly with this book, conversations with other books, several paintings and buildings, and many individuals, living and dead, who are, in one way or another, and like me, embroiled in these events. 
 
Literature cannot tell us what we are here for. But in a world where the ambition is that everything is measured and employed, literature’s seeming limitation—that it cannot tell us what we are here for—might mean that art is perhaps the last place for genuine thought and expression. It’s not that I believe literature can make the world better or less unjust, but that by its very nature, its will for doubt and remembrance and complexity and expansion, literature can hinder the cruel and bigoted oversimplifications that every tyrannical gesture requires. 
 
I would like to thank my friends and family, and my publishers and agents. Most of all I am indebted to my first reader, my friend and companion, my wife the artist Diana Matar.
 
My deep thanks to the judges—Richard Davenport-Hines, Flora Fraser and Ysenda Maxtone Graham—and everyone else involved in the Slightly Foxed Best First Biography prize. I am honoured and accept the prize with the deepest gratitude and humility.