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John Woolf wins Tony Lothian Prize

The Biographers’ Club Tony Lothian Prize 2017 has gone to John Woolf for his proposal Queen Victoria’s Freaks: The Performers at Buckingham Palace. The £2,000 prize is for the best proposal for an uncommissioned first biography.

Woolf received the prize at the Biographers’ Club Christmas party, held last night (12 December) in London. His proposed book offers the untold story of the ‘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. By resurrecting the triumphant and tragic lives of the freaks who met Victoria, Woolf humanises the inhumane, and portrays the freak show across the nineteenth century: a world that permeated all aspects of Victorian culture.

The judges were Alex Clark, journalist and broadcaster as well as Artistic Director for Words and Literature at the Bath Festival; Lindsay Duguid, a former editor at the Times Literary Supplement and a judge of the Duff Cooper Prize; and Edmund Gordon, teacher at Kings College London and author of The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography.

The Tony Lothian 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).

It has a strong record of showcasing new talent. The 2015 Tony Lothian winner, Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting, went on to be signed by Faber; Sarah Watling’s Noble Savages, which won last year, secured a deal with Jonathan Cape.

Also shortlisted this year were:

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.

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

A life of one of the most brilliant and influential poets of the twentieth century, telling the story through imagined interviews, fictionalised encounters, transcribed conversations, email exchanges, and unpublished archival materials.

Susan Kelly, Willibald’s Journey

The story of the 10-year pilgrimage to Rome and the Holy Land of Willibald, born in Anglo Saxon England in AD700.

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

Life of the man—born to Armenian parents who emigrated to Lancashire—who was a literary sensation among the smart set of the 1920s.

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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.