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Notes in the Margin

A blog about books
C. J. Schuler is a freelance writer and journalist specialising in literature, travel and the arts. He has written regularly for The Independent, and has contributed to numerous other publications including the Financial Times, The Tablet and the New Statesman. He is currently Chairman of the Authors’ Club.

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A prize-winner struck by lightning

Posted by C. J. Schuler
  • Wednesday, 15 July 2009 at 03:15 pm
The PEN/Ackerley Prize for memoir and autobiography, the only prize of its kind in the UK, was awarded on Monday evening to Julia Blackburn’s The Three  of Us, although the author was unable to collect the prize in person for the most original reason I’ve heard so far –  her hilltop home in Italy had been struck by lightning. Divine displeasure for spilling the beans, perhaps?


Blackburn’s memoir of a dysfunctional bohemian upbringing was a fitting choice for a
prize founded in memory of the writer JR Ackerley, a WWI veteran and friend of Forster and Isherwood. His own classic autobiography,
My Father and Myself, begins provocatively: "I was born in 1896 and my parents were married in 1919." According to an aunt, "Your father happened to have run out of French letters that day." 


The event, held in an airy room under the roof of Foyles bookshop in London’s Charing Cross Road, was chaired by Peter Parker, and began with a discussion of the genre of life writing between two previous winners of the award,
Dan Jacobson and Miranda Seymour. (Diana Athill was also scheduled to take part, but sadly could not attend as she has fractured her arm.)

In the course of this enlightening discussion about “this most agonising of genres”, Seymour admitted wryly: “I thought I’d be the heroine. No one warned me I’d be the anti-heroine.”

Asked if writing biographies of other people was a good grounding for a memoir, she remarked that “It rather horrified me to discover that I had a certain coldness in me after having written too many biographies.” It was a byword among  biographers, she added, that “You’ll never please the widow.”

 Jacobson, who read a moving extract from Time and Time Again, his memoir of his South African childhood, said that the thing about life writing was that “You can’t shape it like a novel … You have to take a raw fact and try to keep it raw.”

 Then the winner was announced, out of what really was an exceptionally strong  shortlist, which also included Julian Barnes’s brilliant meditation on death, Nothing to be Frightened Of, Susie Boyt’s My Judy Garland Life,  Ferdinand Mount’s Cold Cream, and Sathnam Sanghera’s The Boy with the Topknot. (I recently had the pleasure of hearing Sanghera read from his extraordinary book  at one of Damian Barr’s excellent literary salons at Shoreditch House …)

The quality of the shortlist, and the amazing variety of experiences it encompasses, demonstrates that life writing is very much alive and kicking in the UK. Perhaps the last word should go to Dan Jacobson. Asked to explain the genre’s enduring popularity in this country, as opposed to, say, the United States, where such material more usually finds its way into novels, he commented that “English life is more secretive than American life, so autobiography carries a greater charge.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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