Annal: 2006 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Biography

Results of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in the year 2006.

Book:The Man Who Went into the West

The Man Who Went into the West: The Life of R.S. Thomas

Byron Rogers

The great Welsh poet R.S. Thomas (an English-educated man who set out to become more and more Welsh throughout his life) is now accepted, along with Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin and Seamus Heaney, as one of the great post-war British poets. All his life, he was a minister in the Church of Wales, at a succession of increasingly remote country parishes. He had a reputation for being an austere, unforgiving, taciturn, wintry man. Now Byron Rogers has unearthed the amazing story of this man’s life, and that of his household—one both comic, absurd and touching. Here is a man who banned Hoovers from his house on grounds of noise, whose first act on moving into an ancient cottage was to rip out the central heating, whose attempts to seek out more authentically Welsh parishes only brought him more into contact with loud English holidaymakers. To Thomas’s many admirers this will be a surprising, sometimes shocking, but at last humanising portrait of someone who wrote truly metaphysical poetry.

Book:Bad Faith

Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family and Fatherland

Carmen Callil

Bad Faith tells the story of one of history’s most despicable villains and con men—Louis Darquier de Pellepoix, Nazi collaborator and “Commissioner for Jewish Affairs,” who managed the Vichy government’s dirty work, “controlling” its Jewish population.

Though he is one of the less remembered figures of the Vichy government, Darquier (the aristocratic “de Pellepoix” was appropriated) was one of its most hideously effective officials. Already a notorious Nazi-supported rabble-rouser when he was appointed commissioner, he set about to eliminate the Jews with particularly brutal efficiency. Darquier was in charge of the Vel’ d’Hiv’ round-up in Paris in which nearly 13,000 Jews were dispatched to death camps. Most of the French who died in Auschwitz were sent there during his tenure. Almost all of the 11,400 French children sent to Auschwitz—the majority of whom did not survive—were…[more]

Book:George Mackay Brown: The Life

George Mackay Brown: The Life

Maggie Fergusson

George Mackay Brown was one of Scotland’s greatest twentieth-century writers, though in person a bundle of paradoxes. He had a wide international reputation but hardly left his native Orkney. A prolific poet, and hailed by the composer Peter Maxwell Davies as “the most positive and benign influence ever on my own efforts at creation”, he was also an accomplished novelist and a master of the short story. When he died in 1996, he left behind an autobiography as deft as it is ultimately uninformative.

Maggie Fergusson interviewed George Mackay Brown several times and is the only biographer to whom he, a reluctant subject, gave his blessing. Through his letters and through conversations with is wide acquaintance, she discovers that this particular artist’s life was not only fascinating but also vivid, courageous and surprising.

Book:The High Road to China

The High Road to China: George Bogle, the Panchen Lama, and the First British Expedition to Tibet

Kate Teltscher

A virtuoso work of narrative history about two societies whose relationship is of urgent interest today.

The High Road to China traces two extraordinary journeys across some of the harshest and highest terrain in the world: the first British mission to Tibet, and the Panchen Lama’s state visit to China to mark the emperor’s seventieth birthday.

In the late eighteenth century, with its empire expanding, the British sought a commercial opening to China, which was closed to outsiders; and they saw a possible advocate with Peking in the Panchen Lama, the spiritual leader of the Buddhist people of Tibet. The British envoy, a young Scot named George Bogle, sought an opening to China through negotiations with the Panchen Lama’s envoy, a Hindu monk and trader, and then through the incarnate deity himself. All the while, he kept a journal, in prose that is by turns playful, self-deprecating, grandiose, and shrewd, and through his words Kate Teltscher makes this meeting of two worlds palpably real to the reader. The High Road to China brings the pleasures of narrative history to bear on a crucial turning point in history, one whose effects are still being felt.

Book:John Evelyn: Living for Ingenuity

John Evelyn: Living for Ingenuity

Gillian Darley

This new This new biography of John Evelyn, diarist, scholar, and intellectual virtuoso (1620-1706), is the first account to make full use of his huge unpublished archive, deposited at the British Library in 1995. This crucial material permits a broader and richer picture of Evelyn, his life, and his friendships than permitted by his own celebrated diaries.

Gillian Darley provides a rounded portrait of Evelyn’s eighty-five years—his family life, his exile in Paris, his interests, and his preoccupations. Evelyn lived through some of England’s most tumultuous history, through five reigns, the Civil War, the Restoration, and the Revolution of 1688. He was author or translator of countless publications, tackling an enormous variety of contemporary issues. Both a religious man and a key figure in the Royal Society, he viewed Christianity and the new science as wholly compatible. Evelyn remained endlessly curious and engaged into very old age, and this absorbing biography demonstrates the liveliness of his hugely busy mind.

Book:Mellon: An American Life

Mellon: An American Life

David Cannadine

A landmark work from one of the preeminent historians of our time: the first published biography of Andrew W. Mellon, the American colossus who bestrode the worlds of industry, government, and philanthropy, leaving his transformative stamp on each.

Following a boyhood in nineteenth-century Pittsburgh, during which he learned from his Scotch-Irish immigrant father the lessons of self-sufficiency and accumulation of wealth, Andrew Mellon overcame painful shyness to become one of America’s greatest financiers. Across an unusually diverse range of enterprises, from banking to oil to aluminum manufacture, he would build a legendary personal fortune, tracking America’s course to global economic supremacy. Personal happiness, however, eluded him: his loveless marriage at forty-five to a British girl less than half his age ended in a scandalous divorce, and for all his best efforts, he would remain a stranger to his children. He had been bred to do one thing, and that he did with brilliant and innovative…[more]

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