Anyone coming accidentally into the Biographers' Club Prize dinner in the spectacular Louis XVI-style ballroom of the Savile Club last night could have been forgiven for thinking they had stumbled upon one of the oldest and most venerable literary clubs of London. The fact that it was founded by one man a mere ten years ago is astounding.
Andrew Lownie, who was already one of the most industrious and successful independent literary agents in London, somehow found the time to create a club whose meetings are invariably packed with the great and the good. His creation, however, has finally grown too large for him to control alone and last night he officially handed over power to a distinguished committee. I suspect in a hundred years time members will still be talking with reverence of the energy and imagination of their founder ,(maybe even discussing biographies of him).
Anyway, I was there because I was one of the judges, (the others were Nicola Bowman who runs the extraordinary Persephone Books which is enjoying a huge success with a certain Miss Pettigrew, and Richard Davenport-Hines, who is also currently enjoying a triumph with his new biography, "Ettie - the Intimate life and dauntless spirit of Lady Desborough").
We had been presented with proposals and sample chapters for twenty books by first time writers, at least half of which I believe, with the help of a good agent, could find publishers, and asked to reduce them to a shortlist of five, with one winner. It was not an easy choice but we eventually decided on Michael Bundock's biography of Francis Barber, the slave who was also Samuel Johnson's friend. I think it will be a fantastic book, but I quite expect to see the rest of the shortlist published and in the shops within a couple of years as well - I hope so.
The prize is sponsored by The Daily Mail and is undoubtedly money very well spent if it kick starts careers for some of these excellent writers.
It was a beautifully organised and glittering evening - Simon Callow spoke and everyone gossiped and the splendid Andrew Lownie was roundly toasted. Personally, I can't wait to see what he does next with all the free time he must now have on his hands!