View From Here: Benefactor relights the non-fiction award flame

A CHEERING story for the New Year and, at least, for two more years after that. In this space last June I mourned the passing of the NCR Prize for non-fiction and laid out a prospectus for a replacement. I mentioned the literary agent, Giles Gordon, and the publicity expert, Dotti Irving, as the team that ran initially with the idea that became the NCR, stressing how keen they were for the non-fiction torch to be relit.

"What is needed," I wrote, "is a book-loving chairman or chief executive... 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."

Well, work it did - and this is how. The article was read by my friend and editor, Stuart Proffitt, then in transit from HarperCollins to Penguin. Stuart thought he knew exactly the right person, whom he describes as "a book-loving businessman" - now retired - "who is particularly fond of non-fiction".

"I simply sent him a letter enclosing a copy of your article, and had an almost immediate response. We had to get the costings worked out. We had the go-ahead by the end of September," Stuart explained.

Last month Stuart announced the launch of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, to be awarded this summer and for at least two summers after that. Its lustre is guaranteed, both in terms of lucre (a tidy pounds 30,000 for the winner and pounds 2,500 for each shortlisted author), and of prestige. Jim Naughtie, the morning voice of the thinking classes on Radio 4's Today programme, will chair the first panel of judges.

It is quite terrific news all round, not least for British academics (though the competition will not be confined to the UK - "books published in English by writers of any nationality" will be eligible, and quite right too). But, by Dotti Irving's reckoning, five of the 10 NCR Prize- winners were academics. "Good, scholarly writing," she says, "should not remain within the province of the academic world."

Giles Gordon, who represents 20 scholars, said the purpose of the Samuel Johnson Prize "is to commend scholarship, original thinking and real, proper writing. If George Orwell were professor of politics at LSE, he would surely win it. Clear, lucid prose that makes the subject comprehensible to the ordinary reader - that is what scholarly writing should aspire to."

The retired businessman benefactor wishes to remain anonymous, so I can neither name him nor thank him in person. So I'm doing it here through this column. As Dotti Irving put it, he has filled "a definite gap". Eighty- nine per cent of the books published each year in Britain are non-fiction, and the Samuel Johnson is their equivalent of an Oscar. We are hugely grateful. In case your own eyes do not embrace this section of The Independent, I shall get Stuart Proffitt to pass this column to you.

The writer is Professor of Contemporary History at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London. His book `Never Again: Britain 1945-51' won the NCR Prize in 1993

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Recruitment Genius: Nursery Nurse and Room Leader - Hackney

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a qualified childcare p...

AER Teachers: PPA TEACHER/MENTOR

£27000 - £37000 per annum: AER Teachers: THE SCHOOL: This is a large and vibra...

AER Teachers: EYFS Teacher

£27000 - £37000 per annum: AER Teachers: EYFS TEACHERAn 'Outstanding' Primary ...

AER Teachers: YEAR 3 TEACHER - PREPARATORY SCHOOL

£27000 - £40000 per annum: AER Teachers: YEAR 3 TEACHER - PREPARATORY SCHOOLA ...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones