Author Benjamin Myers has won the ninth Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction with The Gallows Pole, a novelisation of the true story of the Cragg Vale Coiners. Bluemoose Books, a small Yorkshire-based independent publisher, triumphed over some of the UK’s biggest publishing houses and saw its author Benjamin Myers receive his £25,000 award from sponsor the Duke of Buccleuch at the Baillie Gifford Borders Book Festival on Saturday 16th June. Myers was handed his winner’s cheque by last year’s winner Sebastian Barry, who gave an eloquent speech about the importance of the prize.
As an added accolade, Benjamin Myers will also be the subject of a special Royal Mail postmark congratulating him on winning the prize. The postmark will be applied this week to stamped mail that Royal Mail deliver to around 30 million addresses across the UK. This is only the second time a book prize has been selected for this special recognition by the Royal Mail.
On being awarded the Walter Scott Prize, Benjamin Myers thanked his ‘small but perfectly formed’ publishers, and said he would be spending the prize money on ‘going to see the original line-up of Guns ‘N’ Roses in Reykjavik’, and to have a break after publishing seven books in eight years, to ‘sit in his back garden and listen to the birdsong.’
The prize Judges, who include Elizabeth Buccleuch, journalists James Naughtie, Kirsty Wark and Kate Figes, writers Katharine Grant and Elizabeth Laird, the Abbotsford Trust’s James Holloway, and historian and Borders Book Festival director Alistair Moffat serving as chair, said:
‘Judging this prize is always tough, and our 2018 shortlist was such a cornucopia of different styles, themes and historical episodes that we had our first ever hung jury and secret ballot. Before the ballot, the judges reminded themselves of the core values of the Walter Scott Prize, one of which is that the winning book, whether expansive or intimate, should be powerful enough to remain with readers for years to come. In the end, our final choice was between delicate porcelain and earthy clay, and clay triumphed.
The Gallows Pole, our winner, is a roaring furnace of a novel. In telling a big story about a small place, Benjamin Myers portrays social upheavals which have a sharp contemporary echo, as well as bringing to light a little-known and fascinating fragment of rural English history, through his portrayal of the lawless ‘coiners’ and their charismatic warlord pitting themselves against the massed forces of industrial and social change. He meets the challenge for every author of historical fiction – bringing alive the past and speaking forcefully to the readers of today.’
The judges’ agonising choice of winner was made in the face of fierce competition from the other five books on the shortlist: Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, Jane Harris’ Sugar Money, Paul Lynch’s Grace, Patrick McGrath’s The Wardrobe Mistress and Rachel Malik’s Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves.
Benjamin Myers joined three of his fellow shortlistees – Jane Harris, Paul Lynch, and Rachel Malik – at the Baillie Gifford Borders Book Festival on Saturday 16th June to hear the final result, and came up on stage to receive his £25,000 cheque and a specially-commissioned glass trophy depicting the rolling landscape of Sir Walter Scott’s Border country, from the prize sponsor the Duke of Buccleuch and two-times prize winner and newly-honoured Laureate for irish Fiction, Sebastian Barry. The other shortlisted authors were then also honoured on stage and presented with cheques for £1,000 each.
Sebastian Barry said about the Walter Scott Prize:
‘Here is an absolutely wonderful prize for historical fiction which is acquiring a history of its own. To me this is a prize like no other. A prize that does its strange work so well that it may be considered not just passively to honour historical fiction, but to be having an effect on it at DNA level. It digs and nurtures the seed bed.’
The Walter Scott Prize specifically focuses on historical fiction, ie. books that are set at least sixty years ago, with the judges looking for originality, innovation and evocation of time and place. The prize is open to novels published in the previous year in the UK, Ireland or the Commonwealth. It was founded to honour the achievements of Sir Walter Scott, considered to be the inventor of the historical novel. Previous winners include Hilary Mantel, Andrea Levy, Tan Twan Eng, Robert Harris, John Spurling, Simon Mawer and Sebastian Barry.