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

The Tony Lothian 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).

This year’s judges: Alex Clark is a journalist and broadcaster who writes for the Guardian and the Observer, and is the Artistic Director for Words and Literature at the Bath Festival; Lindsay Duguid is a former editor at the TLS and a judge of the Duff Cooper Prize; Edmund Gordon is author of The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography and teaches at Kings College London.

 

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