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The Shortlist for the 2017 Tony Lothian Prize has been announced.

The prize awards £2,000 to the best proposal for an uncommissioned first biography. The Prize, run by the Biographers’ Club, is sponsored by the Duchess of Buccleuch in memory of her mother, Antonella, Marchioness of Lothian, OBE (1922-2007).

 

The shortlisted proposals are (in alphabetical order):

 

Lin Rose Clark, The Boxing Parson of Killarney

The author tells the story of her grandfather Robert ‘Bob’ Hilliard, a roisterer and rebel who met an early death fighting with the International Brigades against Franco. While still a schoolboy he scandalised his Protestant family by supporting the cause of Irish Independence, and pitted himself against the world thereafter. A Classics scholar who boxed for Ireland in the Paris Olympics of 1924, he left his studies for love and a shotgun wedding. His career in journalism was interrupted by sudden conversion to Christianity, upon which he became a respected parson; abandoning that, he joined the fight against the growing threat of Fascism by going to fight in Spain.

Funny, eloquent and wayward, he was both hero and anti-hero: ambitious, backsliding, loved and castigated in equal measure. This biography explores the personal crises that sprang from the extraordinary era in which he lived and throws light on a paradoxical man and his times.

 

Oli Hazzard, Enter a Cloud: A Book On/With/For/After W.S. Graham

W.S. Graham was one of the most brilliant and influential poets of the twentieth century. A close friend of Dylan Thomas and Edwin Morgan, published by T.S.Eliot at Faber, inspiration to Harold Pinter and cherished by figures from all branches of poetry he nevertheless lived most of his life in poverty and obscurity. Enter a Cloud traces in idiosyncratic fashion his remarkable, difficult life, from interwar childhood in Scotland through the Second World War and his extraordinary poetic output, to post-war New York and London with their thriving poetic circles and eventual residence in Cornwall and his involvement with the artists of St Ives.

The book eschews any traditional biographical techniques to approach Graham’s life aslant, through imagined interviews, fictionalised encounters, transcribed conversations, email exchanges, and unpublished archival materials. Graham’s amused and amusing scepticism about the very act of biography is honoured in a way that might well have pleased its subject.

 

Susan Kelly, Willibald’s Journey

Willibald, born in Anglo-Saxon England in AD700, was the greatest traveller of his age. His fame rests upon a ten-year pilgrimage he made to Rome and then the Holy Land, then a Muslim Caliphate, during which he faced perils and setbacks that would have felled a lesser man. He was arrested as a spy and nearly executed; he survived malaria and bubonic plague; he courted the death penalty, climbed a live volcano, and encountered lions and crocodiles,snakes and scorpions. Once settled as bishop in Bavaria, he told all this and much more about his extraordinary travels to his kinswoman Hugeburc, whose narrative forms the basis of this book.

It is extraordinary that Willibalds’s story has not been told before, given the richness of the material and the exciting, detailed narrative, now supplemented with the tales of other pilgrims and travellers, and up-to-date archaeological evidence. It evokes a long-lost world and a remarkable man’s place within it.

 

Philip Ward, Every Other Inch a Gentleman: The Lives of Michael Arlen

Michael Arlen was a literary sensation among the smart set of the 1920s. A self-styled chronicler of Mayfair society, he published a string of stories and novels that made him a celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic, none more successful than The Green Hat, made into a film with Greta Garbo. Courted by Hollywood, and married to a Greek countess, the millionaire author set up home on the French Riviera and remained immaculately tailored, endlessly clubbable, even after his star dimmed …

Yet this was only one of his lives. For ‘Michael Arlen’ was born to Armenian parents who had emigrated to Lancashire: a young adventurer who re-invented himself as a dapper man of letters, and moved among the brightest stars of the Jazz Age. This book explores this complex figure and the rise and wane of his reputation; in doing so it will also be a chapter in the history of taste.

 

John Woolf, Queen Victoria’s Freaks: The Performers at Buckingham Palace

This books offers the untold story of the ‘freaks’ that Queen Victoria loved to stare at. The royal household was a revolving door for ‘dwarfs’, ‘giants’, ‘Siamese twins’, ‘Aztec children’ and ‘exotic freaks’, who were summoned by royal command from the boards of the Victorian freak show to Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle for the entertainment of the monarch, her family and her royal guests. They would often leave with gifts presented by Her Majesty, and their royal patronage helped to make their careers.

These encounters were recorded in Victoria’s journals, and splashed across the press; they show the monarch in a new light. And by resurrecting the triumphant and tragic lives of the freaks who met Victoria this book humanises the inhumane, and tells the story of the freak show across the nineteenth century: a world that permeated all aspects of Victorian culture.

 

The winner will be announced and the Prize awarded at the Biographers’ Club Christmas party, to be held on Tuesday 12th December 6.30-8.30 at E6 Albany, Piccadilly, London W1J 0AR

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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.