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.

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