City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

EIBF 2017: The James Tait Black Prizes, Review

By Vivien Devlin - Posted on 17 August 2017

Laura Cumming and Eimar McBride
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Edinburgh International Book Festival
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Sally Magnusson, Dr. Jonathan Wild, Dr. Alex Lawrie, Olivia Ferguson, Jo Wilson

The James Tait Black Prizes were founded in 1919 by Janet Coats, the widow of publisher James Tait Black, to commemorate her husband’s love of good books.

Two prizes of £10,000 each are awarded annually for new works of fiction and biography by the University of Edinburgh’s School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures.

This Awards Presentation is a highlight of the EIBF, recognising excellence in both research and imagination. Once again, it was introduced by the BBC presenter, Sally Magnusson, with enthusiasm and wit. These literary awards follow an extensive selection process from the hundreds of submissions by a team of postgraduate students and then by senior academics for the final judging. Two of the students, Olivia Ferguson and Jo Wilson described their work, checking eligibility of books and compiling reports which was informative and entertaining.

Dr Jonathan Wild, the judge for the biography prize, discussed the shortlist of four books, starting with “The Vanishing Man” by Laura Cumming, the Art Critic of The Observer. She undertook meticulous research following the journey of John Snare, a Victorian bookseller in his detective work to prove that a portrait he has bought is a forgotten work by Velazquez. This intriguing mystery is similar to the excellent "Fake or Fortune" BBC TV series, investigating the authenticity of paintings.

In similar vein is “A Life Discarded” by Alex Masters, which investigates the life of the writer of fifty years of diaries found in a skip which Wild praises: “the style of prose is a joy to read.”

"A Stain in the Blood: The Remarkable Voyage of Sir Kenelm Digby” by Joe Moshenska, is a colourful 17th century adventurous tale of trade, piracy, politics and religion across the Mediterranean, North Africa and Middle East at the time of the Ottoman Empire.

Douglas Smith has written a work of great scholarship in his biography of “Rasputin,” separating the man and the myth behind the Siberian peasant, whose political influence was was blamed for the downfall of the Romanov dynasty.

These four remarkable lives as captured in these biographies made the choice of an overall winner very difficult. However, the gold envelope was opened to reveal it was “The Vanishing Man.”

In a short, passionate speech, Laura Cumming declared, “I am full of joy” thanking the judges for the prestigious award. Edinburgh is her home town (she recalls taking the 23 bus to school), and she urged the audience to visit the National Gallery to see “Old Woman Frying Eggs” painted by Velazquez, when just eighteen years old.

Novels shortlist and winner

And then on to the shortlist of novels with Sally in conversation with the Dr Alex Laurie.

“A Country Road, A Tree” by Jo Baker, is described as a brilliant, insightful recreation of Samuel Becket’s wartime experience in France, joining the French Resistance, narrowly escaped the Gestapo and awarded the Croix de Guerre.

“What Belongs to You” a debut novel by Garth Greenwell, relates the conflicting emotions of shame and desire felt by a young gay American man, the shame and the desire on encountering a male prostitute in Sofia, Bulgaria.

It is the voice, fragments of thoughts and intimate interior language which impressed the judges on reading “The Lesser Bohemians” by Eimar McBride, about the passionate relationship between an 18-year-old drama student and an older actor in mid-nineties London.

Finally, “The Sport of Kings” by C.E. Morgan is an epic family saga spanning several generations set in the world of horse-racing in Kentucky, covering such themes as slavery, sexual politics, morality and the enduring presence of racial oppression.

Once again, Sally opens the gold envelope and names the Irish writer, Eimar McBride as the winner of the Fiction prize for “The Lesser Bohemians.”

She is extremely grateful and appreciates the importance of “the most literary awards in this islands... this is a huge honour".

The annual ceremony of The James Tait Black Prizes, at the EIBF really should attract a larger audience. With six of the shortlisted writers present, vivacious discussions on the literary merits of all the books, humour and intellectual debate, this is a most inspiring occasion, celebrating the joy of the written word.

This event took place on 14 August, 2017

"The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velazquez" by Laura Cumming (Chatto and Windus)

"The Lesser Bohemians" by Eimar McBride (Faber and Faber)

N.B. A free online course entitled “How to Read a Novel” launched by The University of Edinburgh and Edinburgh International Book Festival attracted 12,000 people to study the classics and contemporary fiction