About the Award The BBC FOUR Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction celebrates originality and diversity in contemporary non-fiction. Named in honour of the great critic, essayist, lexicographer, poet and biographer, the BBC FOUR Samuel Johnson Prize is the world’s richest prize for non-fiction, recognising works published in English in the UK, regardless of the nationality of the author.

Rosie Boycott, the co-founder of Virago Press, Spare Rib magazine, and former editor of the Independent on Sunday, is chairing the judges for the 2008. She has been joined on the judging panel by Claire Armitstead, the Guardian's literary editor, and the poet Daljit Nagra. Also on the panel are the director of the Science Museum, professor Chris Rapley, and the documentary film-maker Hannah Rothschild.The panel judges books in all areas of non-fiction, including current affairs, history, politics, science, sport, travel, biography, autobiography and the arts.

The prize is worth £30,000 prize to the winner.

Murder tale scoops Johnson prize
The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale

An analysis of an 1860 murder case that inspired writers including Charles Dickens has wsummerscale_kateon BBC Four's Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction.

The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher: Or The Murder At Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale (right) beat five other shortlisted finalists to win the £30,000 prize.

The book brings back to life a Wiltshire murder which shocked Britain.

Speaking at London's Royal Festival Hall, chair of judges Rosie Boycott praised a "page-turning yarn".

"Kate Summerscale has brilliantly merged scrupulous archival research with vivid storytelling that reads the_suspicions_of_mr_wicherwith the pace of a Victorian thriller," she said.

"The book is a rare work of non-fiction that mimics the suspense genre and leaves one gripped until the final paragraph."

She said the officer in charge of the investigation, Jack Whicher, was painted as "a complex, shabby character who immediately conjures up images of the scruffy-looking LA cop, Columbo".

She added: "The Road Hill murder case was to dominate newspaper headlines, caused national hysteria and inspired a generation of novelists from Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins to Conan Doyle."

Kate Summerscale, who wrote the bestselling The Queen of Whale Clay - a biography of British eccentric speedboat racer Marion "Joe" Carstairs - is the 10th winner of the annual Samuel Johnson Prize.

MsBoycott was joined on the judging panel by Guardian literary editor Claire Armitstead, Science Museum director Chris Rapley, poet Daljit Nagra and documentary maker Hannah Rothschild.

US journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran won the prize last year for Imperial Life In The Emerald City, an account of his time in Baghdad's Green Zone.

The other shortlisted titles this year were:

* Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart - Tim Butcher
* Crow Country - Mark Cocker
* The Whisperers - Orlando Figes
* The World Is What It Is: The Authorised Biography of VS Naipaul - Patrick French
* The Rest is Noise - Alex Ross

Further information about the winner is available on the official Samuel Johnson Prize website.

Details of other shortlisted titles here

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher Or The Murder at Road Hill House
Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury)

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“Very simply, this is a fantastic book, fantastically written and it's a book of deep moral purpose.” Ekow Eshun, Newsnight Review
“Summerscale has constructed nothing less than a masterpiece. My shelves are stacked with books about crime, but none more satisfying than this.” Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday

It is a summer's night in 1860. In an elegant detached Georgian house in the village of Road, Wiltshire, all is quiet. Behind shuttered windows the Kent family lies sound asleep. At some point after midnight a dog barks. The family wakes the next morning to a horrific discovery: an unimaginably gruesome murder has taken place in their home. The household reverberates with shock, not least because the guilty party is surely still among them. Jack Whicher of Scotland Yard, the most celebrated detective of his day, reaches Road Hill House a fortnight later. He faces an unenviable task: to solve a case in which the grieving family are the suspects. The murder provokes national hysteria. The thought of what might be festering behind the closed doors of respectable middle-class homes - scheming servants, rebellious children, insanity, jealousy, loneliness and loathing - arouses fear and a kind of excitement. But when Whicher reaches his shocking conclusion there is uproar and bewilderment.

A true story that inspired a generation of writers such as Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle, this has all the hallmarks of the classic murder mystery - a body; a detective; and, a country house steeped in secrets. In The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Kate Summerscale untangles the facts behind this notorious case, bringing it back to vivid, extraordinary life.

Kate Summerscale Kate Summerscale was born in 1965. She is the author of the best selling The Queen of Whale Cay, which won a Somerset Maugham award and was shortlisted for the Whitbread biography award. She has also judged various literary competitions including the Man Booker Prize. She lives in London with her five-year-old son




15th May London, The judges for the 2008 BBC FOUR Samuel Johnson Prize announced the 2008 shortlist, . Now in its tenth year the prize is the world’s richest non-fiction prize and is worth £30,000 to the winner.

The BBC FOUR Samuel Johnson Prize for Non Fiction Shortlist 2008

[book links below to book descriptions this page)

* Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart by Tim Butcher (Vintage)
* Crow Country by Mark Cocker (Jonathan Cape)
* The Whisperers by Orlando Figes (Allen Lane)
* The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul by Patrick French (Picador)
* The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross (Fourth Estate)
* The Suspicions of Mr Whicher Or The Murder at Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale - Winner (Bloomsbury)

Rosie Boycott, Chair of the judges, commented:

“This superb list of books captures both the surface and the underbelly of human existence in all its myriad variations. There is murder, betrayal, brutality, beauty and tales of the unexpected. In every instance, it is the power and the quality of the writing that has drawn us to this eclectic selection - and, as judges, it has been our great privilege to discover and help promote this award-winning short list. All six books are ones which changed the way we looked at the world, they are all ones we are eager to pass onto others. To quote Yeats ‘He, too, has been changed in his turn / Transformed utterly / A terrible beauty is born.’” (Easter 1916)

Rosie Boycott is joined by an eclectic panel of judges who offer a wide range of literary, journalistic and academic experience. They are literary editor of the Guardian, Claire Armitstead; poet, Daljit Nagra; Director of the Science Museum, Chris Rapley; and documentary maker and journalist, Hannah Rothschild.

The judges will announce the winner of the Prize at an awards event in the Ballroom of the Royal Festival Hall at the Southbank Centre, London on 15th July. The winner receives £30,000, and each of the five shortlisted authors, £1,000.

BBC FOUR will televise the awards ceremony on Sunday 20th July.

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2008 Samuel Johnson Short List.

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blood_riverBlood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart by Tim butcher_timButcher (on the Congo right)(Vintage)

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Quite superb…a masterpiece.” John le Carré
“Tim Butcher's extraordinary, audacious journey through the Congo is worthy of the great 19th century explorers. Completely enthralling but also a thoughtful and sobering portrait of modern Africa.” William Boyd

When Daily Telegraph correspondent Tim Butcher was sent to cover Africa in 2000 he quickly became obsessed with the idea of recreating H. M. Stanley's famous expedition - but travelling alone. Despite warnings that his plan was ‘suicidal’, Butcher set out for the Congo's eastern border with just a rucksack and a few thousand dollars hidden in his boots. Making his way in an assortment of vessels including a motorbike and a dugout canoe, helped along by a cast of characters from UN aid workers to a campaigning pygmy, he followed in the footsteps of the great Victorian adventurers. Butcher's journey was a remarkable feat, but the story of the Congo, told expertly and vividly in this book, is more remarkable still.

Tim Butcher was born in 1967 and has worked for the Daily Telegraph since 1990 as foreign affairs leader writer, defence correspondent and Africa Bureau Chief. He is currently living in Jerusalem where he is the Telegraph’s Middle East correspondent.cocker_mark

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crow_countryCrow Country
Mark Cocker- right (Jonathan Cape)

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“Cocker is as good a naturalist as he is prose-poet - which means Crow Country has authority as well as charm.” Guardian

“You really must read.” Sunday Times

Rooks and jackdaws are both members of the same bird family. To ornithologists the group is known as the corvids, to the layperson they are ‘crows’. But to Mark Cocker these two species have become a fixation and a way of life. When he moved with his family to a rundown cottage in the Norfolk Broads he acquired first a naturalist's perfect home in the countryside, then the keys to a secret landscape. Twice a day flight-lines of rooks and jackdaws pass over the house on their way to a roost in the Yare Valley. Following them down to the river one winter's night, Cocker discovered a roiling, deafening flock of birds which rises at its peak to 40,000. From the moment he watched the flock, these gloriously commonplace birds were unsheathed entirely from their ordinariness.
Step by step he pieces together the complexities of the birds' inner lives, the historical depth of the British relationship with the rook and the unforeseen richness hidden in that sombre voice, a raucous crow song that he calls 'our landscape made audible'. Crow Country is a prose poem in a long tradition of English pastoral writing.

Mark Cocker Mark Cocker is one of Britain’s foremost writers on nature and contributes regularly to the Guardian, Times Literary Supplement, as well as BBC Radio. His seven books, including the universally acclaimed Birds Britannica (with Richard Mabey), deal with modern responses to wilderness, whether found in landscape, human societies or in other species. He has travelled the world in search of wildlife and won a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship to study the cultural importance of birds in West Africa.

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the_whisperersThe Whisperersfiges_orlando
Orlando Figes -right (Allen Lane) -

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“Brilliant ... he leaves one awed by the beauty and suffering.” Max Hastings

“One of the most unforgettable books I have ever read ... a celebration of family love in an epoch of hellish cruelty ... now in this book these righteous heroes have their rightful memorial.” Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Young Stalin

The Whisperers illuminates as never before the hidden histories of the ordinary people who lived under Stalin's tyranny. It reveals a society where everyone spoke in whispers: whether to protect themselves, their families or friends - or to betray them.
How could Russian citizens preserve their personal identity when the state controlled every aspect of their existence? Was any private life possible when every conversation could be overheard through the walls of cramped communal apartments - and at any moment you could be branded an ‘enemy of the people’?
Drawing on hundreds of private family archives concealed in secret drawers and under mattresses in homes across Russia, and on countless interviews with survivors, Orlando Figes recreates the maze in which people found themselves: a world of terrible moral choices and compromises, where an unwitting wrong turn could either destroy a family or, perversely, later save it. Where some kept a bag packed by their bed in order to be ready for a midnight knock on the door. Where a junior worker would inform on their superior to get their job; a husband to get rid of a lover; a neighbour out of petty jealousy. Where living a double life became the norm. Yet where, amid all this, love, creativity and family resilience somehow managed to defy the state's values - and humanity survived.

Orlando Figes Orlando Figes is Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London. He was born in London in 1959 and studied history at Cambridge. Before moving to Birkbeck he was a University Lecturer in History and Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. He is the author of Peasant Russia, Civil War and A People's Tragedy, which in 1997 won the Wolfson History Prize, the WH Smith Literary Award, the Longman/History Today Book of the Year Award, the NCR Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His last book, Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia was published to great acclaim in 2002 and was shortlisted for the BBC FOUR Samuel Johnson Prize.

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the_world_is_what_it_isThe World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biofrench_patrickgraphy of V.S. Naipaul
Patrick French (Picador)

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“A gripping book, one of the most compelling biographies I have read.” Telegraph

“French's integrity impresses ... a magnificent read. It will be one of the Books of the Year.” The Scotsman

Patrick French has been granted unique access to V.S. Naipaul's private papers and his personal recollections. With respect for Naipaul's formidable body of work, he has produced a luminous account of one of the most compelling literary figures of the last fifty years. Beginning in Trinidad, where V.S. Naipaul was born into an Indian family, French examines early privations, Naipaul's first recollections, his life within a displaced community, and his talent and fierce ambition at school, which won him a scholarship to Oxford at the age of seventeen. He describes how, once in England, homesickness and depression struck with great force, and the ways in which Naipaul's first wife helped him to cope with his ‘double exile’. They were to stay, tenuously, together for over four decades, even after Naipaul embarked on an intense, 25 year affair that was to inspire a second wave of work. Naipaul's extraordinary gift - producing, masterpieces of both fiction and non-fiction - is born of a forceful, visionary impulse, whose roots Patrick French traces with a sympathetic brilliance and devastating insight that does full justice to this enigmatic genius.

Patrick French Patrick French was born in England in 1966, and studied literature at Edinburgh University. He is the author of Young husband, Liberty or Death and Tibet Tibet and is winner of the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, the Royal Society of Literature Heinemann Prize and the Somerset Maugham.

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the_rest_is_noiseThe Rest is Noiseross_alex
Alex Ross (Fourth Estate) - authors blog

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“Warm, joyful and unfailingly adroit in his evocation of music in words.” Sunday Times

“A remarkable achievement, quite outstripping comparable surveys...A highly enjoyable book of impressive scholarship...that every music lover should read.” Spectator

A sweeping musical history that goes from the salons of pre-war Vienna to Velvet Underground shows in the sixties. In The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker, gives us a riveting tour of the wild landscape of twentieth-century classical music: portraits of individuals, cultures, and nations reveal the predicament of the composer in a noisy, chaotic century. Taking as his starting point a production of Richard Strauss's Salome, conducted by the composer on 16th May 1906 with Puccini, Schoenberg, Berg and Adolf Hitler seated in the stalls, Ross suggests how this evening can be considered the century's musical watershed rather than the riotous premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring seven years later. Ross goes on to explore the mythology of modernism, Sibelius and the music of small countries, Kurt Weill, the music of the Third Reich, Britten, Boulez and the post-war avant-garde, and interactions between minimalist composers and rock bands in the sixties and seventies.

Alex Ross is music critic for The New Yorker and has won two ASCAP Deems Taylor Awards for his music criticism, a Holtzbrinck Fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin, a Fleck Fellowship from the Banff Centre and a Letter of Distinction from the American Music Center for significant contributions to the field of contemporary music. The Rest Is Noise is his first book.

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2008 Other Samuel Johnson Longlisted titles

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Mad, Bad and Sad
Nothing to be Frightened Of
Miracles of Life
Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800
Lisa Appignanesi
Nothing to Be Frightened of
Julian Barnes
Jonathan Cape
Miracles of Life
J.G Ballard
Harper Collins
Finding Moonshine: A Mathematician's Journey Through Symmetry
Rudolf Nureyev
Cold Cream: My Early Life and Other Mistakes

Finding Moonshine: A Mathematician's Journey Through Symmetry
Marcus Du Sautoy
Fourth Estate
Rudolf Nureyev: The Life
Julie Kavanagh
Fig Tree
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Austerity Britain 1945-1951
Mrs Woolf and the Servants
Great Hatred, Little Room:
Austerity Britain, 1945-1951
David Kynaston

Mrs Woolf and the Servants: The Hidden Heart of Domestic Service
Alison Light
Penguin Press

Watching the Door
Confessions of an Eco Sinner
A Life of Picasso: Triumphant Years, 1917-1932 vol 3
Watching the Door
Kevin Myers
Atlantic Books

Confessions of an Eco Sinner: Travels to Find Where My Stuff Comes from
Fred Pearce
Eden Project Books

The Discovery of France
The Brother Gardener
The Discovery of France
Graham Robb


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2007 - Samuel Johnson- Winner
Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone - Rajiv Chandrasekaran (Bloomsbury)

American Reportage At Its Best Wins £30,000 BBC Four Samuel Johnson Prizechandrasekaren

“A vividly detailed portrait…like something out of Catch-22.” New York Times

Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone, a startling account of life in Baghdad's Green Zone was tonight named the winner of the BBC FOUR Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction for 2007. Its author, Rajiv Chandrasekaran (right), receives a cheque for £30,000.

Baroness Helena Kennedy, the Chair of the judges, made the announcement at an awards ceremony held at London’s Savoy Hotel. She commented:

Imperial Life in the Emerald City is up there with the greatest reportage of the last 50 years – as fine as Hershey on Hiroshima and Capote’s In Cold Blood. The writing is cool, exact and never overstated and in many places very humorous as the jaw-dropping idiocy of the American action is revealed. Chandrasekaran stands back, detached and collected, from his subject but his reader is left gobsmacked, right in the middle of it.”

As the former Baghdad bureau chief for The Washington Post, Rajiv Chandrasekaran escorts the reader into the Green Zone - a bubble of surreal Americana. Its a walled-off enclave of towering plants, posh villas, and sparkling swimming pools that remains the headquarters for the American occupation of Iraq. Cut off from wartime realities, the monumental task of reconstructing a devastated nation competes with the more sybaritic distractions of life in this Little-America on the Tigris.

Chandrasekaran describes the bars stocked with cold beer, a disco where women dance in hot pants, a cinema that screens shoot-’em-up films, the all-you-could-eat buffet piled high with pork, a shopping mall that sells porn, a car park filled with shiny new SUVs, and a dry-cleaning service. Most Iraqis are barred from entering the Emerald City for fear they would blow it up.

Drawing on hundreds of interviews and internal documents, Chandrasekaran brings to light a remarkable array of insights into the nature of the American occupation. He identifies:

* the US aide who based Baghdad’s new traffic laws on those of the state of Maryland, downloaded from the internet
* the contractor with no previous experience who was paid millions to guard a closed airport
* the people with prior experience in the Middle East who were excluded in favour of lesser-qualified Republican Party loyalists
* the 24-year-old who had never worked in finance yet was put in charge of revitalising Baghdad’s stock exchange.

Written with wit and urgency by a sharp-eyed observer, Imperial Life in the Emerald City provides a hair-raising portrait of the gap between the Wizard of Oz like Green Zone and the brutal reality of post-war Iraq.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Rajiv Chandrasekaran is an assistant managing editor of The Washington Post. He heads The Post's Continuous News department, which reports and edits breaking news stories for washingtonpost.com, and he helps to shape the newspaper’s overall multimedia strategy.

From April 2003 to October 2004, he was The Post's bureau chief in Baghdad, where he was responsible for covering the American occupation of Iraq and supervising a team of Post correspondents. He lived in Baghdad for six months before the war, reporting on the United Nations weapons-inspections process and the build-up to the conflict. He now lives in Washington DC.
The New York Times Book Review describes the book as “Absolutely brilliant. It is eyewitness history of the first order. . . . A clearly written, blessedly undidactic book. It should be read by anyone who wants to understand how things went so badly wrong in Iraq.”

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Murian_burumader in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance
By Ian Buruma (left) (Atlantic Books)
The story of the murder of controversial Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh, killed by a young Muslim who objected to one of his works.

Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran (Bloomsbury)
Hair-raising portrait of the first year of US-led coalition rule in post-Saddam Iraq, centring on the base of operations known as the Green Zone.

Having It So Good: Britain in the Fifties
By Peter Hennessey (Allen Lane)
Account of Britain's emergence from the shadow of war and rationing into a period of growing affluence - but declining influence.

Daughter of the Desert: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell
By Georgina Howell (Pan Macmillan)
Biography of the remarkable Gertrude Bell - archaeologist, Arabist, spy, linguist, author, poet, photographer and mountaineer.

Brainwash: The Secret History of Mind Control
By Dominic Streatfeild (Hodder and Stoughton)
The story of the world's most secret psychological procedure, from its origins in the Cold War to its part in today's 'war on terror'.

The Verneys: A True Story of Love, War and Madness in Seventeenth-century England
By Adrian Tinniswood (Jonathan Cape)
Based on the near-miraculous survival of tens of thousands of Verney family letters in an attic, this is an intimate portrait of 17th century English life.

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Past Winners and Shortlists

2006cover design of 1599

The 2006 winner was James S. Shapiro for 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare

The shortlist was:

* Alan Bennett, Untold Stories
* Jerry Brotton, The Sale of the Late King's Goods: Charles I and His Art Collection
* Carmen Callil, Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family and Fatherland
* Tony Judt Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945
* Tom Reiss The Orientalist: In Search of a Man Caught Between East and West


The 2005 winner was Jonathan Coe for Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson

The shortlist was:

* Alexander Masters Stuart: A Life Backwards
* Suketu Mehta Maximum City
* Orhan Pamuk Istanbul
* Hilary Spurling Matisse the Master
* Sarah Wise The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave-Robbery in 1830s London


The 2004 winner was Anna Funder for Stasiland

The shortlist was:

* Anne Applebaum Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps
* Jonathan Bate John Clare: A Biography
* Bill Bryson A Short History of Nearly Everything
* Aidan Hartley The Zanzibar Chest: A Memoir of Love and War
* Tom Holland Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic


The 2003 winner was T.J. Binyon for Pushkin

The shortlist was:

* Orlando Figes, Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia
* Aminatta Forna, The Devil that Danced on the Water: A Daughter's Memoir of her Father, her Family, her Country and a Continent
* Olivia Judson, Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation
* Claire Tomalin, Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self
* Edgar Vincent, Nelson: Love and Fame

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The 2002 winner was Margaret MacMillan for Peacemakers: The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War

The shortlist was:

* Eamon Duffy, The Voices of Morebath
* William Fiennes, The Snow Geese
* Richard Hamblyn, The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies
* Roy Jenkins, Churchill: a Biography
* Brendan Simms, Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia


The 2001 winner was Michael Burleigh (left) for The Third Reich: A New History

The shortlist was:

* Richard Fortey, Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution
* Catherine Merridale, Night of Stone
* Graham Robb, Rimbaud
* Simon Sebag Montefiore, Prince of Princes: The Life of Potemkin
* Robert Skidelsky, John Maynard Keynes


The 2000 winner was David Cairns for Berlioz Volume Two: Servitude and Greatness

The shortlist was:

* Tony Hawks, Playing the Moldovans at Tennis
* Brenda Maddox, Yeats's Ghosts
* Matt Ridley, Genome
* William Shawcross, Deliver Us From Evil
* Francis Wheen, Karl Marx


The 1999 winner was Antony Beevor for Stalingrad

The shortlist was:

* Ian Kershaw, Hitler
* Ann Wroe, Pilate
* John Diamond, C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too
* Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Darker Reflections
* David Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations

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