View From Here

MY SPRING cycle has been disturbed this year. A gap has appeared which saddens and depresses me. The NCR prize-giving for non-fiction did not happen last month.

I simply hadn't noticed the press release last December in which the computer company announced that, thanks to a refocusing of its business, it had decided "that sponsorship of the award no longer sits comfortably with its core business and marketing strategy".

NCR were excellent sponsors. The event was well run. The prize at pounds 25,000 tax-free was a tidy sum, and not just by the meagre standard of academic salaries. It was to non-fiction what the Booker was - and remains - to fiction.

Winning it was, as I discovered in 1993, the equivalent of a second book launch. The adjective "prestigious" is somewhat devalued, but the NCR was just that. David Puttnam chaired the judges who picked my Never Again and they were a rigorous line-up that included Richard Hoggart and Margaret Jay.

The NCR was good for the scholarly profession too, historians especially. Four of the 10 winners fell into the category of "history men" - Simon Schama with Citizens, in 1990, myself three years later, John Campbell's biography Edward Heath in 1994 and Orlando Figes' A People's Tragedy last year. I know that our combined success encouraged our own peers to write with such a bonanza - both financial and disseminational - in mind.

As you can see, a glow remains even after five years. But quite apart from my personal pleasure at winning it, the NCR's significance was established and profound. (The best-known book of the 10 is Jung Chang's Wild Swans, which won in 1992 and has sold 7 million copies worldwide.) British non- fiction needs and deserves its place in the sun of public and press attention.

The NCR never became the news story that the Booker regularly is. There is a fine line to be drawn between the kind of rows among the judges that attract publicity and the calm and serious business that adjudication should be. The NCR had a touch of controversy occasionally, but, to its credit, it avoided developing into the kind of spectacle that personality clashes among the literary glitterati can provide.

It is strange that non-fiction should lack the attention which naturally seems to fall upon the novel in the UK. Perhaps part of the explanation lies in Ray Seitz's description of us as a nation that lives in the imagination. This, the former US Ambassador to London explained, in his witty memoir of British life as viewed from the Grosvenor Square Embassy, is why we produce such outstanding spies and novelists.

Given the centrality of non-fiction to our huge annual consumption of books (the special and enduring appeal of biography is probably the most graphic example of this), it might seem that a big annual non-fiction award would be a permanent fixture of the literary cycle. This is one of the reasons why I am surprised as well as disappointed that NCR pulled out.

It may be that the NCR prize was so accepted so swiftly as a regular feature that the company felt unappreciated. Added to this, there was a spattering of carping and unfortunate criticism of the judges at the awards ceremony last year which can only have irritated the benefactors who funded it.

None of the 10 NCR winners is quite rich enough to put up the tab for a replacement. The tradition, for that is what it had become, needs a commercial sponsor. The team that ran with the idea initially and helped to set it up - the literary agent Giles Gordon and the publicity expert Dotti Irving - are still intensely active and very keen for the non-fiction torch to be relit.

What is needed is a book-loving chairman or chief executive (of a company which takes seriously the cultural life of the nation within whose boundaries it trades) to pick up the phone to either of them (or to me). I wonder how many such people read the education pages of our quality press ... If they do - and it works - I'll let you know.

The writer is Professor of Contemporary History at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

    £16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

    Recruitment Genius: Gas Installation Support Engineer

    £20000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Gas Installation Support Engi...

    Recruitment Genius: Gas Installation Engineer

    £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Gas Installation Engineer is required ...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Advisor - Opportunities Available Nationwide

    £15000 - £70000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to ...

    Day In a Page

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence