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Wednesday, 27 January, 1999, 11:26 GMT
Posthumous Whitbread prize for Ted Hughes
freda hughes
Ted Hughes' daughter Frieda with the winning book
The late Poet Laureate Ted Hughes has become the first writer to win the Whitbread Book Of The Year prize two years in a row.

His Birthday Letters was declared the winner at a ceremony in London a year after he won the same prize with his Tales From Ovid.

He beat a strong line-up of competing candidates, which were The Last King Of Scotland, by Giles Foden; Leading The Cheers, by Justin Cartwright; and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, by Amanda Foreman.

Chairman of the nine-strong judging panel Raymond Seitz said the award was made by majority decision, with some of the panel opting for Justin Cartwright's novel.

Judges 'conscious' it was posthumous award

He added:"People were concious it was a posthumous award, they were conscious he had won last year and they were conscious that maybe this was a sentimental favourite.

"But I just want to assure you that the discussion around the table was based purely on the quality of the literature that was around us."

Birthday Letters - a collection of poems mainly addressed to his first wife, Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963 - also won the TS Eliot Poetry prize earlier this year as well as the Whitbread Poetry Award. It recieved more acclaim last week when it won the Best Literature prize at the South Bank Show Awards.

Birthday Letters was Ted Hughes' last book, published nine months before his death in October 1998 aged 68.

He had been blamed by some of Plath's admirers for her suicide, but Birthday Letters - written over a period of 25 years - showed his grief over the break-up of his marriage to the American poet.

Letter from Hughes read on stage

His daughter by Plath, Frieda Hughes, accepted the 21,000 prize, and read a letter he wote to a friend after the publication of Birthday Letters.

She said: "It's better than anything that anyone could have said on his behalf."

The letter read: "Yes, I think you are right. I think those letters do release the story that everything I have ever written since the 1960s has been evading.

"It was in a kind of desperation that I finally did publish them. I had always throught them too inexplicably raw and unguarded, simply too vulnerable.

"But then I just could not endure being blocked any longer. How strange that we have to make these public declarations of our secrets, but we do.

"If only I had done the equivalent 30 years ago I might have had a more fruitful career - certainly a freer psychological life.

"Even now the sensation of inner liberation - a huge southern possibility of new inner experience. Quite strange."

Other candidates

The three other titles that competed with Birthday Letters each won other Whitbread awards to qualify for the chance of winning the prize.

Justin Cartwright's Leading The Cheers, which was the judges' second choice, is his fifth novel. It follows recently unemployed Dan Silas' return to smalltown America where he rediscovers a past life vastly different to his own existence in London.

An old friend believes he is the brother of a 19th century Indian chief and a former girlfriend is the victim of a tragedy. In awarding him the Whitbread Novel of The Year, the judges called it a "a clear and unanimous from a very heavyweight field".

Giles Foden's first novel, The Last King Of Scotland, traces Idi Amin's eight-year rule in Uganda through the eyes of a Scottish doctor who finds himself becoming personal physician to Amin.

Foden, 31, who is literary editor of The Guardian, grew up in Africa through most of Amin's dictatorship. It won the Whitbread First Novel award, with the judges calling it "wholly accomplished and hugely ambitious ... it stands comparison with anything we have read this year."

Portraying 18th century icon

Amanda Foreman portrays an icon of late 18th century Britain in Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. She combined a political career with a reputation as a compulsive gambler and fashion trendsetter.

The daughter of Guns of Navarone screenwriter Carl, Foreman is foreign editor of The Week magazine. Awarding her Biography of The Year, the judges called it "a work of scholarship which is also highly readable".

"People fall in love with this book, it is a model biography," they added.

Judges for the overall Book Of The Year prize included The Express editor Rosie Boycott, Channel 5 newsreader Kirsty Young, and broadcasters Magnus Magnusson and Floella Benjamin.

The audience for the awards ceremony included Culture Secretary Chris Smith and Education Secretary David Blunkett.

The BBC's Nick Higham reports from the Whitbread awards
See also:

29 Oct 98 | Entertainment
Extracts from Hughes' Birthday Letters
13 Jan 99 | Entertainment
Hughes scoops another award
21 Jan 99 | Entertainment
Geri's ginger pal steals arts awards
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