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

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