The winner of the New Angle Prize is the fabulous Kate Worsley for “She Rises”; the runner-up is the splendid Ronald Blythe for “The Time By the Sea”. Here are the notes from the judges’ speeches last night because we really did love all six titles. An honour to have been part of this, thank you to the organisers and sponsors. K x
Being here with you all this evening is a real pleasure and I mean that.
As a writer of fiction, I’m usually to be found on my own, in my pyjamas, struggling with a paragraph I can’t make work; usually, I’m talking myself into carrying on or thinking of reasons to give up; usually, my existential crisis is interrupted by the cat pestering me to be fed again. So having dinner in the company of actual, breathing people, as opposed to imaginary ones, is a treat for me.
[To reiterate] I’m giving the first set of judges’ feedback; Carol will give the second set; it’s alphabetical by surname, so there are no clues as to the outcome.
But I cannot think of this as feedback, as such, when it’s simply doing one of my favourite things: talking about books I love. Furthermore, it’s a privilege being allowed to share my thoughts with other authors.
And it is to you, my writing brothers and sisters, that I now speak. We writers are solitary beings and yet we have a shared experience. And while I’d prefer to do this in a more intimate setting, I respect you too much to tell you anything other than the truth. In fact, this could work a whole lot better for me, if everybody else wasn’t here.
So if you’re one of the people who is not shortlisted for the New Angle Prize this evening, please feel free to tune out for the next 5 minutes; you can use this time to finish your bread rolls, check your phones, whatever you like . . .
Ronald, Mark, Esther, Jason, Alex and Kate . . . Let’s pretend it’s just us for now, okay? Good.
Ronald Blythe, your memoir, “The Time by the Sea.” Here we meet the likes of Benjamin Britten, E.M. Forster, Imogen Holst, musicians, painters, poets. You show us a familiar Aldeburgh, Aldeburgh as we know it now, but also an Aldeburgh lost to us – and that exists only as memory. And Ronald, you are qualified like no other person to write on this subject. It’s fair to say that of all the writers we read this year, you know Suffolk the best. You shared with us a moment from your history, took us to the heart of this artistic community. However, it is difficult for me personally to remark on your work without sounding glib, for you have done so much and I have done so little. If I tell you that you write beautiful prose, Ronald, I know you’ve heard it before. If I tell you that I aspire to a career like yours, that risks sounding ludicrous because the real world will never allow it. So let me tell you this instead: when I read your book, it made me feel that I should try harder to write well.
Mark Cocker, “Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet,” which are journals of your walks, mainly around a Norfolk village. This is a celebration of the natural world from the microscopic to the charismatic, but it isn’t an ordinary, sciencey book, is it? We readers feel that yours is an inclusive point of view. Your ears are better than ours, more attuned to birdsong, to the whispers of seasons as they come and go; your eyes see details in creepy-crawlies, and in the soil under our feet, we simply would not notice if you didn’t show them to us. For me personally, Mark, your writing is a mixture of the consolations of mindfulness – with an underscore of anxiety, because you make us aware how fragile the natural world is – without resorting to shrill clichés. On the contrary, you use precise description to inspire wonder in us. I could see the slickness of an otter as it dove beneath the surface, or the mumuration of starlings as it switched direction – I could see this movement exactly as you saw it and that’s an astonishing achievement.
Esther Freud, your novel, “Mr Mac and Me.” You tell your story through a boy called Thomas, about the arrival Charles Rennie Macintosh (the Scottish artist and architect) in a small village. Your novel explores what it means to be an artist living in harsh times and the paranoia of impending war. At its heart is this friendship between Thomas and Mac, two people who don’t fit in, which you never lose sight of. Well, Esther, we readers were gripped from the start. The way you evoke the voices of Suffolk, the landscape of Suffolk, is authentic. Stylistically, your writing has a sparse quality. And I have a personal attachment to your book, because I also wrote what might be called an ‘art history novel’. I wonder, if you’ve ever been asked how appropriate it is to fictionalise the life of a real artist, somebody who lived and left work to know them by? I find this an awkward question, but the next time somebody asks me, I have a good answer for them: your novel is how to do right.
I love all three of these books, and the three more Carol will comment on later.
And the books we love are strange creatures, aren’t they? For isn’t it the case that they appear to us, whole and fully-formed, as if out of thin air? This is fantasy, of course. A finished book is the outcome of hard work, of inordinate effort and failed attempts. Nothing kills the romance of being a professional writer, like being a professional writer – and nobody knows this better than we do.
To my brothers and sisters, I say . . . Your job is to make the writing look easy and this is how your readers love you best . . . But I know it isn’t. I know you’ve had difficult days, that you have doubts, that you spent hours on pages and chapters which have never made it to print. And you’ve heard the word ‘no’ on more occasions than you care to remember.
Let me take this moment to remind you that you survived the dark times. Out of these pains, you created magnificent work and you shall again.
Ronald, Mark, Esther, Jason, Alex and Kate, please accept this in the spirit it is intended: We praise your effort. We celebrate your achievement. We’re so lucky to have read your book and we feel as if you wrote it for us.
I’m not here to give you feedback, I simply wish to tell you something true: I believe in you. And even if you work in solitude, with the uncertainty, and the emails, and the social media, and the criticism, and the cat pestering you for cat food – whatever else gets in the way, you are not alone – there are others who understand.
So in the years to come, on good days and bad days, please, please keep writing. Keep writing. I’m looking forward to what you do next.
And, thank you.
Jason Hewitt: The Dynamite Room
Fic: Debut novel.
Alternative history based on rumours of thwarted German landings on the Suffolk coast during WWII. 11-year-old Lydia is taken hostage by a Nazi soldier, Heiden. The narrative concerns the claustrophobic dynamic in this remote cottage: POV switches between hers and his. Both have reason to be afraid of one another, and dependent on each other for survival. Both try to probe the other for information: very psychological. It reminded Katie of Boy in the Striped Pyjamas; and The Separation by Christopher Priest. I thought it was a great idea of fictionalizing a real event. At times it was necessary to suspend my disbelief, but I did tha gladly because I was so caught up in the story. I also think it would make a cracking film!
Alex Monroe: Two Turtle Doves: A Memoir of Making Things
Alex Monroe is a jewellery designer and his most famous work is perhaps the bumblebee necklaces. My daughter has one, and I think I’ve seen Fiona Bruce reading the news in one too! Alex grew up in Suffolk in the 70s: and we join his memories of building go-carts and going boating with his brother. It’s quite a sensory experience of these places. Likewise he writes with real honesty about designing and making his designs, cutting the first bumblebee out of the metal, how it takes shape, how it can go wrong. We liked how the bee emerged from the natural material, it was somehow about bringing nature to life. A great sense of place naturally, and just having had a family holiday in Suffolk, I’m really rather taken with the county. Mention the wasp man!
Kate Worsley: She Rises
Another debut novel, this time beginning in Harwich.
Louise Fletcher is appointed as a ladies’ maid to Rebecca, the daughter of a wealthy sea captain. Rebecca is vain, spiteful, beautiful . . . How will Louise cope in this house, working for someone so impossible? While she’s there, Louise’s mother wants her to search for Luke – the brother who has been lost at sea.
We then have Luke’s point of view, this poor boy being press-ganged into His Majesty’s Navy. Luke is the one who is in peril. He might not survive the brutality of life on board a warship, with these violent sailors, storms, fist-fights and all that goes with such a hard life at sea.
There’s a twist in the tale – and all I’ll say is … actually I’m not going to say that. But Sarah Waters gives a jacket quote, “Immensely Enjoyable” and her endorsement is apt. I didn’t want to finish this book, and I very much liked the tone of the voices, which I found wholly authentic.