A Culture Show special on the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2011. Features interviews with the six shortlisted authors and reports from the ceremony.
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Hello and welcome to our Culture Show Special on the BBC and the
Samuel Johnson Prize for Non- Fiction 2011. We're at the Royal
Institute of British Architects here in London for the awards
ceremony where we'll soon find out which of this year's six
shortlisted authors has scooped the coveted �20,000 prize. In the
running this year.. .Political genius and flawed personality in
Bismarck: A Life by Jonathan Steinberg. Dictatorship and
disaster in Frank Dikottor's Mao's Great Famine: The History Of
China's Most Devastating Catastrophe. Historian John Stubbs
explores the lives of wits, womanisers and wanderers in
Reprobates: The Cavaliers Of The English Civil War. A vivid portrait
of the bad boy of Italian art, Caravaggio: The Sacred And The
Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon. Liberty's Exiles: The Loss Of
America And The Remaking Of The British Empire, Maya Jasanoff
traces the lives of defeated British loyalists. And finally one
to rattle the cages of the doom mongers, The Rational Optimist: How
Prosperity Evolves. Matt Ridley's claim that trade improves our lives.
The BBC's Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction is one of the most
prestigious literary awards in the UK. Now in its 13th year, it is
open to all genres of non-fiction, to the arts and current affairs.
Now the vast majority of books sold in the UK are non-fiction, so it is
no surprise, that as our appetite increases, so too does the
importance of this prize. I'm joined now by John Mullan, the
professor of literature at University College London. Ben
Macintyre, who has the task of sharing the Judging Panel.
Ben, it's been a fantastic year for non-fiction. How many entries were
there? There were, I understand, a record 208 entries this year. More
than r before. They span an incredible range of genres in the
extraordinary depth, too. Once the idea of non-fiction was
sort of standard biography of dead, white male. That is down by the
board now. You had a wonderful mixing of genres -- genres going on.
There are two standard biographies of dead white males, John, were you
surprised by that No. There is a daunting biography of Bismarck. It
looks as big as the subject. The prestige of the books, the interest
of the books to the general reader is almost a constant of non-fiction
across the centries. What is interesting is that there are other
genres that almost have not existed for more than a decade or too, the
Matt Ridley book which is on the shortlist which is a kind of genre
of the way we live now, or the way that we think now. The way we will
live tomorrow. So what about the way that we read
now? Do you think that the tastes are changing? That readers are
demanding more gripping narrative? I think that the readers have come
to expect that authors of non- fiction, even like some here are
academics might want to talk to people who are not just academics.
Generally speaking, although there are sometimes problems and short
cuts, I think that is an entirely healthy thing.
Partly, this prize, I think it promise oats that expectation.
John make as good point. We read in a different way. We expect our
lives, the lives we are fascinated by to make us want to turn the page
again. That is what we try to do with the Judging Panel, to find the
books that will absorb, whether with narrative, character, or the
quality of the writing, but that you really want to turn the pages,
that is the key. So many books are different in
genre, where do you even begin? That is the tricky thing? How to
compare to utterly different books? We tried to simply choose what were
the best books of the year. Without being side tracked into whether we
were getting the right pat northern the list in the long list or the
shortlist, but what were the stand- out books? The back k -- books that
we would say you really want to read this. Not that you are
interested in the subject, but that you have to read it.
We will find out shortly who has won, but thank you very much for
joining us. The first book offers a fresh
perspective on mid-17th century royalism in Reprobates: The
Cavaliers of the English Civil War, historian John Stubbs suggests that
there is a lot more to the poet followers of King Charles than
merely feathers, frills, foppery. In fact, the much-maligned
cavaliers, helped to shape British culture. To separate the style from
the substance, we sent satirist and broadcaster, John O'Farrell, to
meet the author, to find out more They say that history is written by
the winners, like all cliches, there is some truth in that, but
any sharp historian knows that there are wonderful stories and
characters to be salvaged from the losing side.
And this is the swashbuckling truth in John Stubbs' Reprobates: The
Cavaliers of the English Civil War. With their flamboyance, fashion and
free-thinking, they are amongst the most irresistible characters in
British history. Can you tell us about some of the
main characters in this story? Who were they? Why were you drawn to
them? Well, the characters that I focus on in the book are writers,
it was a time in which most gentlemen of a certain education
were amateurs of literature. For example Sir John Subtling, best
known as a poet, gambler and theatre producer, who, when war
with the Scots broke out in 1637 decided he could be a cavalry
commander with disastrous consequences.
He provided for the men, it made him the most stprak troop in the
army. He treated the exercise as one of his pieces of personal
theatre. His men brought a gasp of amazement wherever they road, this
were, as a contemporary pointed out, 100 handsome men. Who he had clad
in white dublets and breeches and Scarlett coats, hats and feathers,
well horsed and armed. The mention of practical equipment, mounts and
weaponry, that comes at the end of this account. Ins dental in
comparison to the matter of uniform! So, why were you
interested in write being them, in particular, the losers? Well, I was
interested in where the word, "Cavalier" Came from. It is a word
originally referring to a disluet sort of character. The cavaliers
were given the name by their enemies it was a derogatory term, a
term of abuse, but it became a badge of honour. They prooperated
it and took it on. These were devil-may-care, upper-
class, witty people? What was wit to them? It was really important.
It was a scoring of a point with a good line. A good comeback. You
know it took the form of duelling! It stopped people actually drawing
swords and settling things in the field.
So a sort of 17th century Have I Got News For You? A little bit! The
men had wits and this placed certain demands on them. If the
joke was there for the taking it was wrong to let it past or leave
it to someone else. Battles of wit were a form of duelling. In which
the best points came from using your adversary's own words against
him. Wit was strongly aligned to masculinity. Since a wit was
invariably male. Banter was like sword play, a man's wit was like
his belied -- blade and so, predictably, rather like his penis.
Were the cavaliers about more than their actions? Did their ideas, the
flamboyance that they are renowned for, change attitudes? Their
ideology was what the King says is best.
The divine right of the king? I'm all right, Jack. They are also
liberal in other ways. They are either sponsoring theatre or
working in it. This were puritans? The first
professional women writers were royalists. The cavaliers did have
their part to pay in the process of liberalisation, if you like.
So, has history by smirched the cavalier glass with their cavalier
attitudes? Yes, and probably rightly so. It is the cavalier
attitude, it is an aristocratic attitude. They are either
aristocrats or people posing as them.
So, aristocrats running the country and sitting in the Cabinet today?
The supporters of both Charles I and the second needed cavalier
writing, poetry, celebrating and pleasured lifestyle.
They needed confirmation that the old days were better.
But their real legacy consisted in not quite conforming to type. For
on closer inspection, they were both more and less than real
cavaliers. They offered a lasting suggestion of how, whether a
society cleevs into warring parties, people remain more complex than
Next up, an insightful biography of a brilliant strategist. Much has
been written about the political career of German's Iron Chancellor,
but in Bismarck: A Life, the American historian, Jonathan
Steinberg has chosen to focus on the infuriating contradictions in
his infuriating -- mercurial personality. Rory Stewart went to
discover more about the statesman who cast such a long shadow in
Bertie Ahern Germany. Perhaps no country in Europe -- in
Germany. Perhaps no country in Europe has had no such influence on
modern history as Germany. But 1 50 years ago there was no
such thing as the United States -- United state called Germany. The
creator of this modernified german state was perhaps the greatest
creator of all time, Otto Von Bismarck.
A politicians what strikes me about business mark is that he had one
big idea, he wanted to create a unified Germany, despite the
oppositions he got it done. Bismarck was seen by everybody as
the Iron Chancellor. But in Jonathan Steinberg's
fascinating book, something else emerges. A private, vulnerable man
behind the iron exterior. The real Bismarck was a complex
character. A Highbury condrak with a concity tuition of an ox. He
always wore a uniform in public after a certain stage of his career,
but one of the few never to certain in the king's regular army. His
fellow youngsters came to distrust him. Too clever, too unstable, too
unpredictable, not a proper chap, but all agreed he was brilliant.
So, who was Bismarck? How do you explain who was Bismarck today?
Born in 1815, dies in 1858, a man who unionifies Germany. A war
against the French in 1807, he creates the Geremi that is there
now, he puts the states stogt in a federation, that's the great
Bismarck. The scale of Bismarck's triumph
cannot be exaggerated. He told those who would listen what he
intended to do and how, and he did it. With perfect justice in August
1866 he pounded his fist on his desk and cried, "I have beaten them
all" He is larger than life and intellectually he is larger than
life. What all say is that once Bismarck gets into the stream, you
cannot describe him. He is bewitching. Of course, I'm a
historian, I am interested in the world, how we live in it, came to
be. Bismarck is one of those who transformed it.
This is what he wrote, "About 7.30, the prince invited zuebel and me to
his study. He offered us his bedroom to reLee ourselves. We went
in and found under the bed the two objects that we sought. As we
stationed ourselves at the wall, Zuebel spoke from the depth of his
heart, everything about the man is great, even his chit" In the
bobbing you referred to him as a demonic figure, what do you mean by
that? There was a power that contemporaries were aware of. They
used this word frequently, it was said that "il est el diablo", he is
the deily. This destructiveness, the power, of the capacity to
flatten people, did have something uncanny about him. Lots of
contemporaries called him that. So there is something in the
psychological make-up, the powerful urge, the means of dominating.
Did this have a re-election on his health? He was a hypochondriac. He
had all kinds of terrible symptoms, if the king said a bad word to him,
he would not come out of his room for a couple of days he was like a
baby. Because he designed a system of government in which only he
could make the decisions he had to decide on everything. The fact is
he did not have the power, everything he did required the king
to do it. That is part of the problem with business mash's career.
He was obsessed with dominating people, but he was a servant.
What did they see in him? We all now the picture, his image hung in
every school room in over many a hearth. He embody and manifested
the greatness of Germany. The image became itself a burden to
successors. He made it impossible that Germany could get along with
normal people. The new Kaiser comes, he wants to
be a different king, a king of the people. His and Bismarck clash.
Bismarck is dismissed. Something that could have happened at any
time in the previous 20 years. Kaiser who sacks him is of course
the Kaiser that leads Germany in the First World War? Yes.
Sir Edward Gray says that Germany was like a battleship without a
rudder. The reason is that the rudder was working only in the
hands of Bismarck. When it collapsed, who could do it? The
system could not work, that is the catastrophe. What would Bismarck
have made of the weird 21st century situation? The nomination of
celebrity prizes? He would like that, but if he didn't win he would
not have been pleased! Next on the shortlist is Matt Ridley, who has
turned his attention to free markets and produced a counterblast
to all of 9 economic and environmental doom mongers out
there. In The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, he argues
that negative forecasting is out of control.
He sets out to prove that mankind's unfailing ability to trade and
share ideas will continue to improve our lives. Scientist Adam
Rutherford went to find out why we should all be looking on the bright
When you look at the numbers, the naughties are the best time to be
alive. Our generation has enjoyed more peace, freedom, leisure time,
education, medicine and travel than any other in history.
Why are we so pessimistic? When there are such abundant reasons to
be hopeful. Throughout history wise men and women and many nutters have
predicted catastrophe, and apocalypse at the end of times. The
reasons for the pessimism has changed over the years, but the
doom mongering itself as remained unshakeable.
That's why I'm looking forward to meeting the refreshingly optimistic
Matt Ridley. So, did you start off as a
rationalist or as an oment mist? started as a rationalist with a bit
of a bias towards optimism. I noticed that the good news was not
getting out there. I am a gloomy pessimist like everyone else, but I
have managed to rationalise that the world is getting better.
Pessimism dominates the news, what is it about humans that makes you
feel optimistic? It is invasion. Constantly changing and constantly
bringing in new ideas to replace old ones and combine with new wins,
so the pessimists are right if we do nothing, we will be in trouble.
For example if we use up the oil, we will use it up, but because of
the way that we innovate, we will replace it. Substitute something
else for oil. That is what we have done for the last thousands of
years, innovated our way around any problem. That is what I think will
continue. Human beings have started to do
something to and with etch other -- each other that in effect build a
collective intelligence. They had started for the first time to
exchange things between unrelated and unmarried individuals. To share,
swap, barter and trade. So you argue that this notion of
trade is a unique human attribute, that is the thing that separated us
from all of our ancestors? Well, I'm bringing a very evolutionary
perspective to economics, I think that they are simple things. The
key ingredient is a bottom-up view the world. That is key to genetics
and natural selection, but it is key to understanding economics.
What happens about the time we take off, about the time we go from
being just another ape to a spectacular technological species
with enormous impact on the planet is we start to exchange. No other
animal does this, at least not between strangers. Once you start
doing that, what you are doing is bringing together different ideas
about how to do things, how to make things and allowing them to combine.
It has the sim impact on culture that the invention of sex had on
biological evolution. Ideas start to have sex.
Innovators are in the business of sharing. It's the most important
thing that they do, for unless they share their invasion, it can have
no benefit for them or for anybody else. The one activity that got
easier to do after 1800 and has gotten easier recently is sharing.
Travel and communication, disseminated information, faster
and further. Newspapers, technical journals, telegraphs have spread
ideas as fast as they spread gossip. So, is the central thesis in the
book that we have never had it so good? Yes it is certainly true we
have never had it so good, but it does not mean this is as good as it
gets. What we have today is a veil of tears compared to what we could
achieve. We are not hithing the diminishing returns that the
economists have been respecting for 200 years. It was thought we would
experience diminishing returns, that iron out the deficiencies and
there would be no improvements to gain, but there is accelerated
growth. There is more growth around the world. Why is that? Because the
ideas are not limited. It is not true that you run out of new ideas.
The more new ideas you have, the more chance there is of finding new
ones. If we are sharing ideas we are in a potentially infinite
improvement in our lives. History repeats itself as a spiral,
not a circle. With an everygrowing capacity for good and bad, played
out through unchanging individual character, so the human race will
continue to expand and enrich its culture, despite setbacks and
people having the same evolved unchanging nature. The 21 st
century will be a magnificent time to be alive. Dare to be an
optimist! Great research is the life blood of factual writing, but
new discoveries can be a challenge to accepted homeowner. That was the
case with our next book by the Dutch academic Frank Dikottor. In
Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating
Catastrophe, the author trawled through recently released documents
from China's rural archives to reassess the true costs of Mao Tse-
tung's ill-conreceived Great Leap Forward. The author is a professor
at Hong Kong University, the BBC Beijing correspondent, Damian
Grammaticas, went to meet him to hear proof of Chairman Mao's role
China in the 19 50s was one of the poorest nations on earth e, but Mao
Tse-tung dreamt of transforming his country into an communist paradise.
He launched the Great Leap Forward, a policy looks to revolutionise
industry and putting China on the map.
His goals were catalogued in Frank Dikottor's Mao's Great Famine: The
History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe. It is one of the most
detailed accounts on the subject ever published.
Can you explain a little by about Great Leap Forward that caused
this? What was Chairman Mao trying to achieve with this? Chairman Mao
sees the wealth of China in its people and in particular in the
hundreds of millions of people who live in the countryside.
And his attempt to catapult China's past its competitors consists in
forging that massive population in one giant army.
, "Everyone a soldier, Chairman Mao had proclaimed at the height of the
campaign, brushing aside a salary, a day off each week, or a
prescribed limit on the amount of labour that a worker should carry
out. A goient's people's army in the command economy would spont to
-- respond to every Beck and call of its generals. Ever aspect of
society organised along military lines in a continuous revolution"
What do you pinpoint as the cause of 9 famine? The food shortages
come about as many of the schemes simply don't work N this kind of
radical collectivisation, farmers themselves have no incentive to do
any work it is not just shortage of food, it is actually the
distribution of food that matters. Food is used as a weapon. If I am
in charge of the village and I think you are too old or too sick
to actually work, I will ban you from the canteen.
So what we tend to forget about this period is that people, it was
not just the people that starved to death, people were being starved to
death. , "Throughout the country a starved
logic governed relationships between the rulers and the ruled.
As there was not enough food to go around, the able workers were given
preferential treatment while those considered idle, the children, the
sick and the elderly were abused." China was exporting grain to Russia
in return for nuclear expertise while this was going on? China goes
on a shopping spree, importing massive amounts of equipment,
including entire factories from the Soviet Union and the Eastern Europe.
Then the bills come in. In November 1958, it was said by
someone, "I would rather not eat than not honour our commitments to
our foreign friends" By that he means he would rather export more
grain to pay for the bills than to lose face.
In your book you document an extraordinary level of violence
that went on throughout Chinese? The violence struck me right away
in the first week when I started working on the archives. There was
a story of a boy who was tied up and thrown into a pond as he had
stolen a handful of grain. There seemed to be a lot of those
stories., "Violence became the routine rule of control. It was not
used occasionally on the few to instil the fear on many, but it was
used systematically, against anyone who seemed to dawdle, obstruct the
process, let alone pilfer or steal by the majority of villagers"
all of this is happening, people in their desperation are turning on
each other, is that right? Families start collapsing. Fathers take away
the food ration of their daughters, just outside of Nan chin is the man
that takes the grain ration of his eight-year-old daughter and this
girl dies of hunger. There are many accounts of people forced to make
horrendousous choices. At the end of all of your research
and work and writing of this, who do you think was responsible for
this famine? There is one man who set this whole thing in motion, his
name is Mao Tse-tung. Having said that, Chairman Mao
would never have prevailed without the help, assistance and the
support of key players around him. So this is not just one man it is
also an entire system that is responsible for what happened.
The number of people you calculate who were killed is almost double
what others have said? On the basis of very detailed sats of statistics,
I reached the conclusion that at least 45 million people died
unnecessarily during that period. Is an unimaginable number of people.
I still can't get my head around that. I suppose if you wished the
sheer scope of death during that period and the American of death
which make Chairman Mao's great famine stand out as one of the
greatest man-made disasters in human history.
Our second biography this evening is a vivid portrait of a brilliant
but troubled artist, Caravaggio: The Sacred and the Profane, is by
the art critic and Culture Show presenter, Andrew Graham-Dixon. A
decade in the writing it preess -- pieces together the dark, dangerous
and dirty deeds of the life of arguably the greatest Italian
painter of the 17th century. It re- examiness the event of -- that
marks Caravaggio's fall from grace. Sarah Dunant is an author as
passionate about history as she is about art. She met Andrew Graham-
Dixon to discover the truth about Caravaggio was not always the art's
superstar that he is today. His renewed popularity has come from
his work, but also from the fascination of his life as the
brawling murdering bad boy of counterreformation Italy. In a
culture with an insatiable appetite for the private lives of the famous,
this combination of rep bait and genius has proved simply
irresistible. It has taken Andrew Graham-Dixon ten years to write
Caravaggio: The Sacred and the Profane, a biography which sets out
to present new evidence and new theories on the painter's life and
work. Caravaggio's life is like his art,
a series of lightening flashes in the darkest of nights. A man who
can never be known in full because almost all that he did, said,
thought and lost is in the uncoverable past. Much of what is
found here is found in the criminal archives of the time.
Apart from those of the painting, these are crimes and misdemeanours.
When Caravaggio emerges from the obscurity of his past, he says like
the characters in his own paintings, as a man in the extremist.
I suppose, Andrew, the first question is what took you so long?
You mean, just ten years? Yes? Mostly, waiting for new leads to
emerge, to play out. Very, very complicated archival research to be
done. So, did you start knowing that
there was more information to be discovered? I started by realising
that I was in an unusual position. You are talking about somebody who
is incredibly celebrated, loved as an artist. About him it is possible,
suddenly, to write a really new book as people obsessed with
Caravaggio have been digging and digging and digging and digging and
finding and finding, but have published their research in tiny
places. The main archival places have
studied this for 30 years. There was a tiny little book
printed in Latin. So there was a chance to show Caravaggio to the
world. So everybody knows that there is this violent episode in
his life? Caravaggio murdered a man. There are suggestions that there
had been ill feeling for a while, but the key evidence is, which has
emerged in recent years, is the fact that this was a dual. It was
not just a fight that broke out, this was a dual. They had had
enough, they had to settle it. So Caravaggio walks into his fate?
Shrib rately. Yes, absolutely deliberately.
-- deliberately. The dual does not last long. Real
duals are short and sharp. At the climax, Caravaggio ceezs his
initiative. He lungs the -- at the groin of his fallen opponent,
piercing his fem ral artery. Caravaggio takes out his sword and
then Thomas steps out of line to help his injured, bleeding brother.
He draws the sword and strikes the painter in the head. Caravaggio,
sturned by the injury can fight no more. Then the carnage stop zrb
stops and everyone disperses. As the friend carries on, they
unconsciousless reeenact, Caravaggio's alter piece in a
nearby street. A solemn depiction of men struggling under er the
weight of a heavy corpse. How far do you think that reading
him in his own paintings and the images that one cease of him in his
paintings tells you as much about the artist as it does the life?
most obvious case of a picture, were if you read the facts much the
life against the painting, that painting makes sense in a new way,
it would be the famous David and Goliath. Where Checko is holding up
the head of Goliath, who, here he is, Caravaggio, with this
terrifying face. The death's head of Goliath is this self-portrait.
He seems horrible, half dead, half alive, the right eye glazed over
and closing with the left eye outraged in pain. He is like one of
the damnetd souls in Dante's Inferno.
Caravaggio painted David and Goliath and the painting was his
darkly ingenious plea to the one man who could save him throughout
the trial. His way of saying that the judge was welcome to have his
head in the painting, if only he would let him keep it in real life.
What did you discover, what was it about the process that allowed you
to see a different Caravaggio? is somebody who has been turned
into a ludicrous set of myths, I hope. What he emerges from in my
book is actually a human being, a person, a complicated, strange
person, but somebody whose actions are explicable. Somebody who lived
in a world where particular codes of honour and violence were
prevalent. He was not just a lunatic. He was a real man. A real
person. Our final book may not be the first
historical cow of the American Revolution and its aftermath, but
it is the first to give a full voice to the losing side. In
Liberty's Exiles: The Loss of America and the Remaking of the
British Empire, Harvard historian, Maya Jasanoff reworks the stories
of those who fled America in 1783 to rebuild their lives in British
colonies. Playwright and fellow American Bonnie Greer talks to the
author about the disordeal die as pra -- diaspora that shaped the
empire. Growing up in America you get the
story of the American Revolution that is all really one sided. This
is the story of the other side. This is the story of the people.
The people, who, as you and I were taught as children, who lost.
And you chose this subject. I'm very fascinated as to why.
The story of the American Revolution is such a central story
to who Americans think that they are, that it was important in a
sense to get a full picture of who we really are and bring out the
voices of the people who used to be written off as without history.
Is that for any particular reason? Or do they move you more or
interest you more? I think that I have always been drawn to history
through lives, but I am drawn to the lives that seem the more
obscure ones. It may abfunction of my own back ground in a sense as
somebody who comes from mixed traditions and who has traveled a
lot throughout my childhood and beyond. I'm really drawn to the
stories of people who seem to cross borders and fall between the cracks
and who are not neatly boxed into established categories. What if you
hadn't wanted the British to Lee? Mixed in amongst the happy New York
crowd were other less cheerful faces for the loyalists, the
colonist who sided with them in the war, the departure of the troops
sided worry, not tribulation. What sort of treatment could they expect
in the United States? Would they be jailed? Would they be attacked?
Would they be able to hold on to their jobs? Confronting real doubts
in the United States, 60,000 loyalists decided to follow the
British and take their chances elsewhere in the British Empire.
You talk about the evacuation of New York. When I read that section
it almost reminded me of the images that we saw in 9/11. It wasn't
exactly that way, but it was the feeling that New York was on the
run. The evacuation of New York city in 1783 was, I think, quite
possibly the largest single transfer of population out of the
United States. It is an amazing story, absolutely
amazing, but also the largest evacuation that the British managed,
we are talking about 30,000, 40,000 people. In order to get a sense of
the bustle of what was happening I looked at the newspapers, the pages
are crammed with little advertisements, advertisements for
people selling off their goods. They have to leave. Advertisements
telling people where the ships are sailing from. Announcements of
meetings of people gathering together, figuring out where to go
next. Letters written in from different parts of the empire to
say come here, go there. The sheer demographic shock of
Jamaica's society must have shocked even before they left the ship.
This carried almost 2,000 other blacks on ward into continued
slavery. Stepping off the convoy, the loyalists joined people of
colour and free blacks living in Jamaica. As they made their way on
to the streets of Kingston, they must have marvelled to find
themselves for the first time in his life in a city where black
faces outnumbered the white. What I came across in the research
of the book is the loyalist claims to compensate the loyalists for
what they lost. Thousands filed claims for this commission. They
were all submitted to the office. The British state is good at record
keeping, they are all in the National Archives, I went through
the stuff to reconstruct the sense of loss and agitation and need and
ambition, in a sense, from the dispossessed people to get as much
back as they possibly could. Withen these bundles lurked stories
of wartime devastation, adventure and personal trauma. It was here,
for instance, that Thomas Brown told of his torture, ha John lick
sten Stein explained he had been chased from his plantation and that
Molly Grant told of her flight to Niagra.
It showed a picture of Civil War. They give unusual insight into the
columnists material world, forming a sort of unsystem altic colonial
systems book. There were households, loss brass
coffee pots, slick saddles, favoured garnet ear rings.
Why do you think it is important today to have this book? This is a
time when many are insecure of the foundations of their nations of
their places in the world. These stories are about people living
through a moment when their entire foundation was Yanked away. Yet
they found a way forward, a way forward that in the United States
is the founding of the, you know, the great beacon of liberty to so
many through the ages. They found a way forward in the British Empire
that had its vision of liberty that is a profound and wilful thing when
seen at its best. Well, there we have it. Communists
and Caravaggio, loyalists and rational optimists and a statesman.
Six but only one winner. Time now to turn to the judge panel to find
out who is the winner of the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-
Fiction. We now move to the tougher part of
the evening, when we have to choose a winner from these extraordinary
books. These are monumental works.
There is a book that changes our view of the past and also Australia
view of the present. Do you agree? I thought -- and also our view of
the present. I thought it was an extraordinary
read. In the details as they are unfolding, not just 46 million dead,
but a third of all houses raised, grotesque damage to the ecosystem
and chilling broughtallisation of the levels at the authoritarian
state. It is almost too much. to unpick the whole thing, the
whole thing is systematically, the reports, the statistics were wrong
from the ground up. At each level they were more distorted. So the
work of scholarship involved, taking the central figures, finding
out how they compare with the locals once, comparing this was a
very mathematical feat. And the evidence of how he got the
material. He obviously knows the Chinese.
All of these tiny little things, these pieces of information
suddenly becoming available. This is very impressive. The effect is
that this is all new information, newly researched, he has sources
for everything. A very moving narrative. This book is changing
history. It is certainly changing the West's view of China. Certainly
the view in this country was that the cultural revolution was the
real horror of the post 1949 China. We now know it was this Great Leap
Forward. We move from the dark ness of
Chairman Mao to Caravaggio, this extraordinary look at Caravaggio
and his work and himself in a different way, do you agree?
found Caravaggio illuminating. It is, you know, it is this
extraordinarily... Written with great panache and enthusiasm it
carries you along and puts you into Caravaggio's world but to me, what
is most important about it, why we are interested in Caravaggio is
that it takes the paintings and reads them so closely and not a bit
of dirt under a finger nail is missed. The weighing of Caravaggio
hanging in the gallery. The lovely bit in the beginning that says that
the paintings are so dark, there is this intense boxes that they blow
the other paintings off the wall. You cannot hang them next to
anything else, you don't see the other paintings.
And set beautifully in the historical context. I thought that
I could smell the sewers of Rome going through this extraordinary
life of his? It is a study of a life sacred and profane. Capturing
the counter reformation in all of that. Making you think about what
that Catholicism was all about. The demand in the Catholicism, that you
look fully on the flesh, the blood of the suffering and he brings that
and puts that into art. It is a wonderful book. Liberty's
Exiles: The Loss of America and the Remaking of the British Empire by
Maya Jasanoff is a past-breaking work. It opens up an area of
history that has been explored but never in this kind of characterful
depth. I found myself thinking that there are a dez books in here. It
is a very important work of -- there are a dozen books in here. It
is a very important piece of history, do you agree? Yes, I think
it is ground breaking. I really envy it, I really wish I had
written it myself. It has everything it has great
characters, it has narrative drive and amazing scholarship and a
fantastic new argument, it would change the way that the history of
the British Atlantic is thought about. Before I suppose in the main
stream, people thought of the American war of independence as
this sort of invasion of the nasty Red Coats, but in fact, the
loyalists were the cousins and the neighbours and the sons of the pait
rots. So it is a Civil War. So I have never read a book that
combines the vit and the bigger stories with the big historical
themes, and they are so original as well. I learned so much about the
first American Civil War and also about the British Empire and how
progressive it was in many ways. And how interrelated they were.
the loyalists in forcing the imperial centre to redefine the
relationship with the colonial subjects. There is this dark matter,
nobody has noticed it, but there is this extra matter e, and here it is.
The loyalists have missed out in the British history, they are not
interested in them and the American history, as they are this strange,
Tory losers! We move to the The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity
Evolves it is a wonderful profound robust and pungent argument, isn't
it, David? It is confidence, polemic and make as lot of people
cross, like it should. Matt Ridley has read so many books on our
behalf. It is a great expend youm about ideas, about the way in which
ideas have mated in the last 200 years and are doing so at an ever
higher rate. It is not an angry book, did you
find yourself uplifted by it? My highest compliment is that I
went through dog-earring pages, thinking I will steal that for a
column. That is a very high compliment!
Absolutely, he is just fizzing and buzzing with ideas, light lit worn
it is one of those extraordinary books of profound research and
understanding and seems to wear it without any great aplomb? It is a
brilliant wide-ranging essay. I did not agree with all of it, but I was
eelectrified with it. He also has no truck with the idea that life
was lovely in the past. That society was simpler, that people
were nicer, so there is no nostalgia, and as a historian I ray
gree. No woman should want to be born before the invention of sure
vievable Caesareans, so I am with you there! This is true.
From there we move to Bismarck, this great towering Hucking figure,
looming over the 19th century. What an extraordinary genius, what a
terrible monster. An extraordinary combination of paranoia, hype
concrack, wit and charm and he describes that century.
And what a good book. The notes are all there. The facts are all there
and yet the narrative sweeps you along. I was transfixed by that
book. So insightful about this extraordinary, charming monster. I
did not agree with all of the grand, historical, political lines that
Bismarck leads straight to Hitler, but that did not matter in a way.
He gives you such a profound figure of this extraordinary fellow.
Biographers often say that the subject is a man of contradictions,
but in this case it is justified, you have the civilian who wares a
union -- wears a uniform all the time. The man who is having
tantrums, weeping. To have a doctor to pat his hand to
sleep at night and then the monster with the guy normous chamber pots!
Also, in some ways slightly depressing as I think we all
nurture a fraint suspicion that politicians are slightly mad people
who -- fate suspicion who just want to boss us around and here is the
most successful politician in the 19th century and he is completely
mad and his reason for living is to order everybody else around.
And I love the relationship with Bismarck that the author has, you
feel him being attracted and repelled at the same time. 7 It is
that he is a monster, but our monster. I felt totally safe in his
hands. I agree, a great guide to a
monumental figure. Finally Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the
English Civil War, a subject so buried in our national character,
the notion of a cavalier, the flamboyant swashbuckler, on the
losing side, who is wrong, but romantic. The texture, the
knewanced portrait that John Stubbs gives us of a group of people who
were extraordinary talented in many ways. Very feckless, a lot of them.
They were not all rep row baits, but my God they got up to bad
behaviour, right down to burning their own noses off to cure
syphilis. An extraordinary group of men.
I was glad to have John Subtling in there. The purpose of the book is
to unpack the idea of the cavalier. It is much an idea as a group of
biography, but we do have one cavalier cavalier in the book. As
in the film, he had 100 young men in Scarlett britches riding into
town and they had to be handsome. All with their brushed hair and the
spectacle for everyone watching. But they are people of sew fist
case too. Thinking profoundly about what they are up to at the same
time with all of this theatre going And the mon kists committed to the
idea of fighting -- and the monarchists committed to the idea
of fighting, but at the service of this king who, really is rather
austere and not cavalier at all. Yes, they are all thinking can't we
warm him up a bit with a nice hat sm! Absolutely. I don't know in --
Warm him up a bit with a nice hat on him.
Absolutely. Ladies and gentlemen, we arrive at the crunch point. It
is so difficult to choose a win frer the truly wonderful books, but
the time has come. I want to thank my fellow judges who have been
models of patience, and percent veerns and patience throughout this
very gruelling but tremendously enjoyable process. Now has come the
time to announce the winner for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-
Fiction, the winner is Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most
Devastating Catastrophe by Frank Dikottor.
Congratulations! Absolutely brilliant! I'm going to hand frank
the very large cheque for �20,000 with many congratulations! Thank
you so much. I'm deeply humbled. You have brought me here tonight
and I'm in extraordinary company, thank you so much.
First of all can I thank the judges and those who organised the prize.
Can I thank also my literally agent who believed in the project from
the very beginning. Can I thank the entire Blooms by team, Michael in
particular. They were wonderful. Can I thank Joe who collaborated
with me in the project and spent a lot of time in remote regions
collecting the memories of those who managed to survive, many of
them are taking the memories of them to their grave.
You did a terrific job. And last, but not least, can I
thank my wife who has had to put up with me for a very long time. You
take Poll Pot and the Kmer Rhouge we no a lot about that. Take that
and multiply that by 20 and you get roughly nearly the horror of this
period and this book tried to reconstruct the stories of the
people who either died or who against all of the odds managed to
pull through and survive. There is no memorial, no museum, no
Recommend brans Day and not even a public debate to be mentioned about
the years of horror. I think it was said that the
executioner calls kills twice, the second time through silence. I very
much hope that the sam sam -- Samuel Johnson prize will tribute
to disturbing the silence and making a little bit of noise.
Frank Dikottor is the winner of the 2011 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for
Non-Fiction, he receive as cheque for �20,000. Well, we will leave
you tonight from a reading from his winning book, Mao's Great Famine:
The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe. Good night.
Tween 1958 and 1962, China descended into hell. Mao Tse-tung,
the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and through his
country and frenzy in an attempt to leap forward, to catch up with
Great Britain in less than 15 years, by unleashing China's greatest
asset a labour force, Chairman Mao thought he could catapult his
country past his competitors in the pursuit of a Utopian paradise,
A Culture Show special on the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2011. Features interviews with the six shortlisted authors and reports from the ceremony at the Royal Institute of British Architects where the judges revealed the winner of the 20,000 pound prize.