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3 May 2023

A visit to Edinburgh, judging the Winner of Winners, and a case of mistaken identity

My fellow Baillie Gifford judges are formidable close readers: diligent, erudite, passionate, smart, committed. They made my job very easy.

By Jason Cowley

I never tire of visiting Edinburgh, one of my favourite cities and surely one of the world’s greatest. I love the ordered formality and wide streets of the Georgian New Town; the architectural grandeur that awaits as you emerge from the lower depths of Waverley Station; the absence of security barriers outside Bute House, the First Minister’s official residence on Charlotte Square; the sounds of the distant seagulls in the skies above, and the presence of the castle on the rock that looms but never threatens or menaces as Kafka’s did. It’s a small city – so much is conveniently accessible to the walker or flâneur – but, apart from in August, when the mood changes during festival time, Edinburgh never seems too crowded, or hurried, or restless.

I was back in the city for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-fiction Winner of Winners Award events. The prize was celebrating its 25th anniversary and the dinner was held in the atrium of the Grand Gallery at the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street. As chair of the judges, I announced the winner.

The judging process was long, enjoyable but also challenging. For a start, the 24 books we read were all prize winners – which ones to cut and why? We were also not choosing the most distinguished work of non-fiction from the past 25 years but the best of the Baillie Gifford, formerly the Samuel Johnson Prize. My fellow judges – Shahidha Bari, Sarah Churchwell, Frances Wilson – and I met for the first time for an informal dinner before Christmas. We met again in February to choose a longlist of 12 books, which later expanded to 14 because we continued our discussion over email and WhatsApp. In March we chose the six-book shortlist: One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time by Craig Brown; Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis; Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick; Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe; Peacemakers: Six Months that Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan; 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro. And on 26 April, at the Baillie Gifford offices on Calton Square, Edinburgh, we chose the winner – 1599, a book that we agreed redefines the art of biography.

Our conversations were always courteous, but they were also animated, sometimes intense, and prolonged. My fellow judges – all considerable writers themselves – are formidable close readers: diligent, erudite, passionate, smart, committed. They made my job very easy.

After we’d chosen the shortlist, we were reminded at a press conference that only one of the six authors was British. Two were Canadian – the Canadians are coming! – and three were American. But nationality was never a consideration. And, as Shahidha said, what could be more British than Shakespeare, the Beatles and George Mallory? What interested us was literary quality – and deep research. The Baillie Gifford is a literary prize. The shortlisted books are deeply researched and of outstanding literary merit. Their subject matter is diverse: an unforgettable study of the lives of six citizens who lived through the 1990s famine in the terrifying North Korean dictatorship; an endlessly inventive biography of the Beatles, which doubles as a social history of the 1960s; a life of Shakespeare that is also a book about a single year at the end of a century at the end of the first Elizabethan Age; a courageously reported and compelling history of the Sackler family and their role in the US opioid crisis; an epic account of Mallory’s glorious but doomed quest to conquer Everest; a boldly revisionist account of the 1919 Paris peace conference and its radiating consequences. But if they share a family resemblance, it is formal ambition.

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They are all doing interesting things with form – challenging and subverting form, or reimagining and revitalising established forms. These writers care about language and good literary style, and they’re adept at conveying what Hilary Mantel called the atmospheric pressure of the times about which they are writing – or what Orwell called, in a different context, the social atmosphere of a country.

Shortly after I’d announced the winner, returning to my table, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Margaret Macmillan, no less. “Congratulations,” she said. “Really, so well done!” Thank you, I said, standing to shake her hand. Then her expression changed. “I’m so sorry. I thought you were James Shapiro.” With that, she was gone.

Among the guests was Angus Robertson, the SNP’s former leader at Westminster and now cabinet secretary for culture and the constitution at Holyrood. During the 2017 general election campaign, I’d spent a day with him canvassing in his rural Moray constituency; in the event, he lost to Douglas Ross, now Scottish Conservative leader. Robertson is a Germanophile and writer, who recently published a well-received history of Vienna, and he may yet one day lead the SNP, having wisely sat out the recent bitter contest. I asked after Nicola Sturgeon, a dedicated reader and regular participant at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. She was not exactly the Banquo at our feast but a notable (if understandable) absentee. One day, I suggested to Robertson, she’d make an excellent chair of the Booker Prize judges. For now, however, there’s the not insignificant matter of the police investigation into the SNP’s opaque finances – about which, on this occasion, I resisted the temptation to joke.

[See also: Why are so many literary prizes closing?]

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This article appears in the 03 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Beneath the Crown