Tuesday, 22 February 2011
Duff Cooper Prize: Sarah Bakewell, Winner
The Duff Cooper Prize is always an occasion of great joy, which takes place in the pleasing confines of the French Embassy in Kensington. It's recently been redecorated - now, standing in it, one slightly feels as if one is being beamed up to a flying saucer, as one half of the room is bathed in lilac light, with an extraordinary gold and silver chandelier (apparently hand made in Venice), whilst the other half of the room is as it always was, with hunting tapestries and so on; if you stand underneath the square halogen lighting for too long you will find that your skin will start to resemble Dale Winton's.
Even so, the place was humming - if not pullullating - tonight with the literary great and good. I saw Sebastian Faulks, bearded and laughing, in the far distance; Jacqueline Wilson was nodding and smiling somewhere beyond my left elbow; Edmund de Waal (who is remarkably tall - now there's a Clerihew for you) was looming about the room; and the usual gamut of bookish types, great and small (including me, who comes somewhere above a bacterium and somewhere below a protozoan) were quaffing and chattering. Biographer Jeremy Lewis was genially beaming; as was his biographical colleague Jane Ridley, whose amazing red velvet coat I have mentioned before; Nicky Haslam popped in, well-dressed as ever; explorer John Hemming was there with his family in attendance, including son Henry Hemming (whose new book, Together, is out now). Novelist James Buchan had brought his daughter Lizzie, thereby reducing the average age of the room by about twenty years; I was mistaken for somebody's great great grandson (whose, exactly, I have yet to discover, though Violet Trefusis seemed to be involved).
Great thanks are due to the marvellous Artemis Cooper, Duff Cooper's daughter, who organises the event, and to the wonderful hospitality of the Embassy and the liberal amounts of Pol Roger. There was plenty of tough competition for the prize. Keith Richards was up for it - although, sadly, he couldn't make it. He is, I believe, the only rock star ever to have been nominated for the award. (I think he would have been at home in the lilac light.)
The winner of the prize was Sarah Bakewell for her brilliant book about Montaigne - who as Andrew Marr pointed out, we like to coopt as an English author, despite the fact that he is most definitely French. Bakewell spoke about the last time she won an award - as an eleven year old, for preeminence in first aiding. Fortunately, none of the guests were in need of her services; the evening, aided by cartloads of champagne and some perfectly delicious meringues, continued with no casualties. Even I managed not to break anything; and that is a triumph in itself.