The UK’s most prestigious award for non-fiction, the £20,000 Samuel Johnson prize, has been awarded to Lucy Hughes-Hallett for The Pike, her biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio (1883-1938), the “repellent” Italian poet and nationalist who was Mussolini’s favourite author.
Martin Rees, the astronomer royal, was chairman of a five-strong judging panel which also included the classicist Mary Beard and the historian Peter Hennessy. Speaking after the prize ceremony in London on Monday night, Lord Rees said: “Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s book stood out for its extremely original and intricate construction.”
The Pike, published by Fourth Estate, is Hughes-Hallett’s third book. It received mixed reviews on publication (the FT described it as “a serviceable biography”) and was a surprise winner from the six-strong shortlist. William Dalrymple’s account of the First Afghan War in the 19th century, Return of a King (Bloomsbury) had been the bookies’ favourite. The other shortlisted works were Not for Turning (Allen Lane), the first volume of Charles Moore’s authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher; A Sting in the Tale by Dave Goulson (Jonathan Cape), an exploration of the mysterious world of the bumblebee; Charlotte Higgins’ Under Another Sky (Jonathan Cape), a road trip around Roman Britain; and finally Empires of the Dead by David Crane (William Collins), the story of Fabian Ware, the man responsible for creating the cemeteries of the first world war.
Lord Rees said it had been a difficult decision: “All these books deserved to win and the shortlist covers the entire range of genres of non-fiction.” Hughes-Hallett’s work won, he added, because it best fulfilled the three key requirements of the Samuel Johnson prize: “It should be original, it should be of high quality and it should be accessible.”