Bragg wins prize for novel inspired by his father's life

Writer, broadcaster and New Labour peer Melvyn Bragg, whose last award was the 1993 Bad Sex Prize, has won the somewhat more coveted WHSmith Literary Award.

Lord Bragg, whose novel The Soldier's Return was inspired by his father, beat off contenders such as Francis Wheen's hotly tipped biography of Karl Marx and the Booker prize-winning Disgrace by JM Coetzee, for the £10,000 prize.

The novel tells the tale of a soldier who returns to Britain after the Second World War and his struggles to adjust to his experiences in a town which has changed little while he has been away.

Lord Bragg was presented with his prize by the Arts Minister Alan Howarth at an lunch in London. The South Bank Show presenter said he was "very surprised" but delighted.

"This book was triggered by the death of my father. Like millions in this country he spent six years of his young life abroad then came back to find a young child, in my case nearly seven."

He said it was an experience shared by "millions and millions of our fellow countrymen. That's the novel I wrote and I wish he was here today".

Professor John Carey, chair of the judging panel, said: "This restrained but compelling novel is both an intimate social documentary and a moving human story. It draws on personal memories but raises problems that still concern us - family breakdown, fatherhood, the nature of masculinity." The book is published in paperback by Sceptre a week today.

Lord Bragg's prize money will apparently prove welcome. The previous evening he had made an impassioned plea in the Lords for an increase in their payments, suggesting £10,000 a session as an appropriate remuneration for working peers. "To have people barred for lack of means, or to see hardworking peers unable to afford a late taxi home to constrained accommodation is no longer amusing or tolerable," said Lord Bragg.

Other shortlisted novels were Joanna Bourke, for An Intimate History of Killing, which suggested that soldiers enjoyed killing; Howard Jacobson's The Mighty Waltzer; and Ann Wroe, for Pilate.

This will be the last such WHSmith Literary Award, after a 42-year run. Next year it will become the WHSmith Book Prize, with a range of new categories, including "new authors", "lifestyle" and "children's book of the year". Each category will have its panel of judges, which will select its own shortlist. The public will be invited to pick the winners from the lists.

The Arts Council of England has given 15 less-established writers grants of £7,000 apiece to help fund work in progress for poets, novelists, biographers and children's authors.