Craig Brown has won the £50,000 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction with his “joyous” One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time (Fourth Estate), which judges said “reinvented the art of biography”.
Brown, a journalist for Private Eye and author of 18 books, was praised for creating a new form of biography, capturing the circumstances that brought the band together and catapulted them to world fame, alongside telling the story of those who came into their orbit.
He was crowned the winner in a unanimous decision by a panel of judges chaired by broadcaster Martha Kearney, who announced the result at a virtual ceremony on 24th November.
Kearney said: “In the deep gloom of 2020, we have discovered a shaft of light. One Two Three Four is a joyous, irreverent, insightful celebration of The Beatles, a highly original take on familiar territory. It’s also a profound book about success and failure which won the unanimous support of our judges. Craig Brown has reinvented the art of biography.”
Accepting the prize, Brown said: "This is amazingly exciting and unexpected. I'm very, very happy. I would like to pay tribute to my fellow authors who've gone through this ordeal. I'd also like to thank my brilliant publishers 4th Estate, especially Nicholas Pearson, Robert Lacey and Naomi Mantin for being so friendly and enthusiastic and giving the book such a good cover apart from anything else.
“And also, I hope I can speak on behalf of my fellow shortlistees and longlistees in paying tribute to a great non-fiction writer who died last week and gave me a sort of place throughout my life, at least for the last 50 years, and that's Jan Morris, a most brilliant writer. We're lucky to have had her.”
Brown said in an interview for the Baillie Gifford Prize website his aim was to convey the fun and excitement of the Beatles' era through a multiplicity of short chapters juxtaposed like prisms, to form a kaleidoscope.
The author has been writing his parodic diary in Private Eye since 1989 and is the only person ever to have won three different Press Awards – for best humorist, columnist and critic – in the same year. Currently writing for the Mail and Mail on Sunday, he has been a columnist for, among others, the Guardian, Times, Spectator and Telegraph. His last book, Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret (Fourth Estate) won the James Tait Black Memorial Award and the South Bank Sky Arts Literature Award.
Charles Plowden, senior partner at Baillie Gifford, said: “In the year that has been like no other, the quality and breadth of non-fiction writing remains excellent. Congratulations to all the shortlisted authors, and to Craig Brown on winning this year’s prize. A worthy winner, and a book that can help provide some welcomed escapism from the current situation”.
The book saw off competition from a shortlist featuring The Idea of the Brain: A History by Matthew Cobb (Profile Books), Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture by Sudhir Hazareesingh (Allen Lane), Our Bodies Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women by Christina Lamb (William Collins), Stranger in the Shogun's City: A Woman’s Life in Nineteenth-Century Japan by Amy Stanley (Chatto) and The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story by Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury Circus).
Kearney was joined on the 2020 judging panel by fellow BBC presenter, professor and author Shahidha Bari, editor and novelist Simon Ings, New Statesman writer Leo Robson, New York Times opinion editor Max Strasser and journalist and author Bee Wilson.
The Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction’s podcast series Read Smart will be releasing a winner podcast, featuring an interview with Brown by host Razia Iqbal, available from 27th November.
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