Formerly known as the Samuel Johnson Prize, the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction has a new sponsor this year and a longlist of ten books, whittled down last month to a shortlist of just four. Open to authors of any nationality, it covers all areas of non-fiction including current affairs, politics, history, science, sport, travel, biography and autobiography. This year’s shortlisted books are:
- Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich (translated from the Russian by Bela Shayevich)
- Negroland by Margo Jefferson
- The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar
- East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity by Philippe Sands
I have read two of the longlisted books starting with This is London by Ben Judah. Citing statistics that 55% of Londoners are not ethnically white British, acclaimed foreign correspondent Judah set out to uncover the stories of immigrants in London interviewing a range of people about why they came to live in London and what their day-to-day lives are like. The interviewees include a Ghanaian tube picker, a Russian oligarch, Romanian labourers, Filipina maids and an Afghan shopkeeper amongst others.
Some of the interviews are more compelling than others and the almost relentless misery of the interviewees’ circumstances in the majority of cases loses some impact by the end. However, Judah’s reporting is compassionate with some stories requiring him to go undercover and it was particularly interesting that much of the book focused on parts of Greater London like Edmonton Green, Neasden and Barking instead of the central areas. Rather than presenting a complete view of contemporary London, the book shows an often hidden and much misunderstood side of life in one of the world’s most diverse capital cities. Judah also highlights the ever-widening divide between the richest and poorest in society – the people he meets are either staggeringly rich or struggling to survive with relatively few living comfortably in between. Overall, ‘This is London’ is a bleak read but also impressively written and very timely.
The second longlisted book I have read is Stalin and the Scientists: A History of Triumph and Tragedy 1905-1953 by Simon Ings. From the impact of applied botany on collectivisation to the early developments in nuclear physics, Joseph Stalin’s belief that “science should serve the state” affected all areas of scientific research with varying results. Following his rise to power as leader of the Soviet Union, some researchers enjoyed a massive funding boost while others were subject to purges hence the title’s referral to triumph and tragedy. Ings weaves in the individual stories of various scientists, almost all of whom I had never heard of before, and the wider political context of their work in a narrative which readers like me with little previous knowledge of their work will be able to follow. A particular focus in the middle section is that of Stalin’s working relationship with Trofim Lysenko, an agrobiologist whose denial of the existence of genes ultimately led to widespread famines in the 1930s. ‘Stalin and the Scientists’ is a thoroughly researched and fascinating look at what happens when science collides with politics in spectacular fashion. Many thanks to Faber and Faber for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.
On Thursday, I went to a shortlist event at the British Academy in London featuring readings from the nominated books. Human rights lawyer and academic Philippe Sands was the only one of the four shortlisted authors able to attend in person and discuss his book East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity with Lorien Kite from the Financial Times. Part biography, part family memoir, the book sees Sands visit Lviv in Ukraine and explore his family history. His grandfather Leon Buchholz is linked to Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin who were part of the prosecution team at the Nuremberg trials and defendant Hans Frank who was Governor-General of Nazi-occupied Poland and Hitler’s personal lawyer. The four main protagonists are introduced individually in the first part where their stories are outlined up to the Nuremberg trials and their stories are then weaved together in the second part.
I have yet to read any of the four shortlisted books but am particularly keen to read ‘East West Street’ which sounds like a remarkable story and a brilliant example of “genre fluidity” which is often present in the best non-fiction as highlighted in the introduction to the event. It is also another timely read in the current political context as Sands feels very strongly that recent events, particularly the appalling headlines in the Daily Mail last week attacking judges as “enemies of the people”, are reminiscent of the populism and nationalism of the 1930s.
The winner of the £30,000 prize will be announced on Tuesday 15th November. Have you read any of the longlisted books?