Always the bridesmaid..?
I had really good news this week. I was in my Faculty office on Tuesday at about 6.15 pm packing up to bike home, when the phone rang from (as the display flashed up) for a Spanish number. It turned out to be an extremely nice man from the Princess of Asturias Foundation to alert me that the jury had just decided to award me the 2016 Princess of Asturias Foundation Award for Social Sciences. It was to be announced the next day at 12.00 and I was to keep mum until then.
I knew something about these prizes before and was obviously extremely chuffed (you dont get phonecalls like that very often -- and I cancelled my decision to make it an alcohol-free day). But I hadn't quite realised how very grand it was until I looked at the previous laureates in my own and other categories, from David Attenborough, Tzvetan Todorov and Mary Robinson in my own category to Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen and Leonardo Padura in literature (that's Padura arriving above), Michael Schumacher in Sport and J K Rowling in Concord. That was all a bit humbling.
The award comes with a nice cash prize, but that wasn't what mattered most this week (I know people always say that, but it is true). It was the fact that people, not on your back door step, have recognised what you do. If I have had a 'project' over the last few years it has been to continue doing top flight specialist academic work, while also sharing the fruits of that with a wider public. I hate with a vengeance the kind of popularising history (or popularising anything) that assumes that that wider public can be fobbed off with some over-simplified, dumbed-down version of what academics really talk about. It has always seemed to me that you can remove some ofthe jargon, talk clearly and capture precisely the issues that are those under debate. So I was particularly pleased when I saw these words of the jury, referring to my 'talent for making specialized knowledge both accessible and relevant to the general public'. That's exactly what I have wanted to do.
It was also nice (an unworthy confession is coming up!) actually to win something. Now, I have been absolutely delighted with how SPQR has gone down with critics, and with the buying punters. I cant really imagine how it could have done better, thanks in part to the big efforts of others (it's a good book, I immodestly say, but lots of good books dont get attention or find buyers). And I have also been delighted that it has been shortlisted for all sorts of literary prizes. To me, shortlisting matters the most. It's a real vote of confidence in the product, after which the final winning choice must always be a bit random and depend on the unpredictable personal preferences of the judges (to put it another way, you could almost guarantee that a different group of judges would choose a different winner -- and that's certainly been the case on the panels I've been on). That said, I was beginning to get a bit of an 'always the bridesmaid' feeling and to wonder if, bauble as it was, it wouldn't be nice actually to win something one day.
And indeed, as I have discovered this week, it is nice. I am so very grateful to the judges for picking me, and really looking forward to going to Oviedo in October to receive the award. The aim for this summer has to be to get some conversational Spanish under my belt. I can just about read the language (especially when it is about Roman history), but I need to do a bit better than that in the autumn.