Philip Hoare (above) last night (30 June) won the £20,000 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction with Leviathan , 'a passionate, intense' book published by Fourth Estate and containing, according to Chair of the judges Jacob Weisberg, 'some of the best prose I read during the contest and some of the best prose I have ever read'.
Hoare's book chronicles a life-long obsession with whales that began in Windsor Safari Park when the author was just six years old. 'I was fascinated, but even then I knew that it was wrong to keep a whale in a swimming pool,' Hoare told BookBrunch, as he enjoyed a celebratory glass and mingled with guests following the ceremony at the Regent's Canal-side King's Place, North London. The book, and the Prize, honour Hoare's mother, who passed away while he was writing, and his sisters.
In a brief acceptance speech, Hoare said: 'I was swimming in Southampton Water this morning and four egrets flew overheard. I wondered what that meant.'
The six shortlisted titles - Lords of Finance by Liaquat Ahamed (Heinemann), Bad Science by Ben Goldacre (Fourth Estate), The Lost City of Z by David Grann (Simon & Schuster), The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes (HarperPress), and Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality by Manjit Kumar (Icon Books) - all won high praise from the judges, who included neuroscientist Dr Mark Lythgoe, writer, director and broadcaster Tim Marlow, and Sarah Sands, Deputy Editor of the Evening Standard. 'The books got better and better and the task got hard and harder,' said Weisberg, of the 166 titles that were whittled down first to a long list of 19. All the finalists prompted laudatory comments, but Goldacre seemed to find particular favour as the six contenders were discussed in an auditorium setting that included a filmed interview with each author. 'I thought that was going to be the winner,' Victoria Barnsley, told BookBrunch. With HCUK authors representing fully 50% of the shortlist, the CEO had every reason to feel delighted.
She, and the rest of the audience, heard Hoare's work likened to that of the late W G Sebald in its blending of history, travel and personal journey. Leviathan was variously described as 'awesome, Hemingwayesque, muscular', 'an absolute page-turner' and 'an absolutely beautiful and compelling journey'. Hoare's books include Serious Pleasures: The Life of Stephen Tennant; Noel Coward: A Biography; Wilde's Last Stand: Decadence, Consipiracy and the First World War; and Spike Island: The Memory of a Military Hospital. A documentary, The Hunt for Moby-Dick, screened on BBCTV last September, has picked up several international awards.
Noted Hoare, who has swum with whales: 'When you look into the eye of a whale, it's very sentient... it's checking you out.'