Cunningham takes top prize at RSL Giles St Aubyn Awards

Cunningham takes top prize at RSL Giles St Aubyn Awards

Doreen Cunningham has won £10,000 for her memoir Soundings: A Journey with Whales at this year's Royal Society of Literature Giles St Aubyn Awards. 

Meanwhile, Alice Sherwood and Danny Lavelle both won £5,000 awards.

The awards, which recognise first commissioned works of non-fiction, were established in 2017, funded by a bequest from Giles St Aubyn, author and RSL Fellow. 

Cunningham's memoir will be published by Virago in 2022. Soundings is about a mother and child following the grey whales from Mexico to the Arctic, and explores themes of climate change and reclaiming a life from sudden poverty and isolation. Judge Damian Le Bas said the book "blends nature writing of the most urgent kind with precise and poetic observation of human tribulation and the interconnectedness of all things. This will be fresh, brave and unique." 

The author worked in climate-related research before becoming a journalist. In 2013, she and her toddler followed the grey whale migration by public transport, from the Mexican birthing lagoons to the Arctic feeding grounds.

Commenting on her win, Cunningham said: "I am overjoyed and blown away. The award will help me so much practically. I can focus on writing my book! Whales have carried human culture on their backs throughout our shared history, they can inspire resilience and community during this time of climate emergency."

She is joined by second- and third-place winners, as the award expands for the RSL's 200th anniversary. Alice Sherwood will receive £5,000 for The Authenticity Playbook (HarperCollins, 2022) and Danny Lavelle £2,500 for his memoir, Down and Out: A Journey through Homelessness (Wildfire, 2022).

Sherwood's investigation examines authenticity and explores how fakery and deceit have "become some of the most resonant elements in modern discourse". Judge Fiona St Aubyn described the the book as "both thought-provoking and highly entertaining, with extraordinary and intriguing anecdotes that skilfully illustrate why we are susceptible to fakery and fraud in our own world, and how mimicry is played out in the natural world." Sherwood has worked in TV as a documentary producer and as head of audience for the BBC’s Digital Curriculum. She is currently a senior visiting research fellow at the Policy Institute at King’s College London. She said: "I’m completely thrilled and very honoured to be given this award. The imprimatur of the RSL means a great deal to me, and I thank the judges for it, and for supporting new writers in this way."

Lavelle's "state-of-the-nation book" assesses the significance of modern homelessness, its precursors and causes, and the ways society might reduce it by changing practices and attitudes. Judge Ramita Navai said it "is a moving, compassionate treatise on poverty and inequality told through captivating stories".

Lavelle spent 18 months homeless before graduating from Goldsmiths, University of London, with an MA in journalism. He works as a freelance feature writer and has covered topics such as mental health, homelessness and culture. He added: "writing a book for the first time has been daunting. Winning this award makes me feel confident that I can write a good book. I’m thrilled and immensely grateful."