Shortlist announced for J.R. Ackerley Prize 2006

Click here to read English PEN’s Press Release regarding the announcement of the 2006 Shortlist.

Now in its twenty-fifth year, the PEN/Ackerley Prize for literary autobiography will be presented on Thursday July 13 at the PEN Summer Party. Since its inauguration in 1982, the PEN/Ackerley Prize has been awarded to some of Britain’s most distinguished authors, with previous winners including Diana Athill, Blake Morrison, Lorna Sage, Jenny Diski, Tim Lott and Germaine Greer. The PEN/Ackerley Prize is Britain’s only dedicated award for life writing. Chairman of the Judges, Francis King, remarked of this year’s prize: ‘it produced a number of good books and a dozen or so excellent ones.’ The 2006 shortlist is:

 * NINA BAWDEN, Dear Austen (Virago)

On May 10 2002 Nina Bawden and her husband Austen Kark boarded the 12:45 from Kings Cross. A few minutes later the train derailed. Seven people were killed and 76 badly hurt. Nina Bawden was gravely injured and Austen was killed instantly. In this powerful and poignant letter to her husband, Nina Bawden tries to make sense of it all. She explains how she found herself the outspoken spokesperson for the survivors of the crash, interviewed here and abroad and even one of the characters portrayed in David Hare’s The Permanent Way. Although liability has finally been admitted, as of October 2004, there has been no resolution to this tragedy, nor a public enquiry into how it happened (taken from the Virago website).

 * ALAN BENNETT, Untold Stories (Faber/Profile)

Writing Home in 1994, Untold Stories presents the very best of Bennett’s writing over the last decade, much of it deeply personal. The title piece is a poignant memoir of his family and of growing up in Leeds, while the book also contains his diaries for the years 1996 to 2004, essays, reviews and comic writing. There are delightful and often moving stories of his friends from theatre and film including Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Thora Hird and Alec Guinness as well as Alan’s exquisitely original take on books, art, buildings, friends and history (taken from the Faber website).


 * XANDRA BINGLEY, Bertie, May and Mrs Fish (Harper Perennial)

This is Xandra Bingley’s account of her childhood on a Cotswold farm, set against the backdrop of the Second World War and its aftermath. With its eccentric cast of characters, this book captures both the essence of a country childhood and the remarkable courage and resilience displayed by ordinary people during the war. The beauty and sensitivity of Bingley’s observation is artfully balanced by the harshness and grit of her reality. Bingley tells her tale in a startling voice which captures the universe of a child, the unforgiving landscape and the complicated adult world surrounding her. Her acute observation, and her gift for place, people, sound, and touch make this a brilliantly authentic and evocative portrait (taken from the HarperCollins website).

 * NEIL CROSS, Heartland (Scribner)


When he was five, Neil’s mother walked out of the family home. Two years later she returned with a new man; Derek Cross. His new stepfather prided himself on being an exemplary parent: kind, patient, never too tired to read him stories. Neil loved him. Yet underneath lurked another Derek Cross – a monster, conman, adulterer, liar, racist and cold-hearted manipulator. This is a story about being raised a racist and an outsider, and overcoming it; about family and step-family; about class and religion; and about how resentment breeds violence. It’s also about what, in the end, the love of books can do for you (taken from the Simon & Schuster website).




 * RICHARD MABEY, Nature Cure (Chatto & Windus)

In the last year of the old millennium, Richard Mabey, Britain’s foremost nature writer, fell into a severe depression. For two years he did little more than lie in bed. He could neither work nor play. His money ran out. Worst of all, the natural world – which since childhood had been a source of joy and inspiration for him – became meaningless. Then, cared for by friends, he gradually recovered. He fell in love. Out of necessity as much as choice he moved to East Anglia. And he started to write again. This remarkable book is an account of that first year of a new life. It is the story of a rite of passage -from sickness into health, from retreat into curiosity. It is about the adventure of learning to fit again. Having left the cosseting woods of theChiltern hills for the open flatlands ofNorfolk, Richard Mabey finds exhilaration in discovering a whole new landscape (taken from the Random House website).  


 * ANNA SWAN, Statues without Shadows (Sceptre)

Anna Swan’s gripping family memoir tells the tragic story of her talented parents with wit, candour and delicacy. Poorly suited to one another, they were even less-well suited to the task of raising a child and Swan unfolds the drama of their lives and death with a novelistic flair. According to the Sunday Times ‘This is a model for how a candid memoir can be truthfully written without robbing the dead of their dignity’ (taken from the London Review Bookshop website).

Blake Morrison, winner of the PEN/Ackerley Prize 1994 said:


‘The PEN/Ackerley Prize, named after one of the most candid non-fiction writers of the twentieth century, is unique in the world of literary awards, and a great honour to win. It may not make you rich but it can do wonders for your confidence.’

Francis King, Chair of the Judges, said:


‘In recent years books about unhappy childhoods have preponderated. Two such made the short-list this year – Neil Cross’s Heartland and Anna Swan’s Statues Without Shadows. What is remarkable about each is that, despite all the childhood suffering endured by the author, the tone is never the usual one of blaming or self-pity. Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure, an account of how his observations of the natural world helped to keep him afloat during a nervous breakdown, struck the judges as the best written of the books; Alan Bennett’s generously bulging portmanteau Untold Story as the most entertaining. In Dear Austen Nina Bawden writes of the death of her husband in a horrific railway accident with passion and grace. Xandra Bingley’s Bertie, May and Mrs Fish is a delightful evocation of a wartime childhood.’

Click here to read about the history of the prize and about past winners.

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