PEN Ackerley Prize

The PEN Ackerley Prize is awarded each year to a volume of autobiography by a British author. It was founded in 1982 in memory of the writer and editor J.R. Ackerley. Originally endowed by his sister Nancy West,  it is now funded by the royalties received for  Ackerley’s books, and remains the only British prize for autobiography. 

The judges do not accept submissions by publishers but call in books themselves, and are looking for ones that display the high standards Ackerley himself set in My Dog Tulip and My Father and Myself-  enquiring, absolutely candid and, above all, very well written. 

The judges are the Trustees of J.R. Ackerley Memorial Trust are all themselves writers, currently Ackerley’s biographer, Peter Parker (chair); the playwright, food writer and historian Colin Spencer; the novelist and short story writer Georgina Hammick; and the biographer and critic Claire Harman. Former judges include the novelist Francis King, the biographer Michael Holroyd, the editor of Ackerley’s letters, Neville Braybrooke, and the biographer and historian Richard Davenport-Hines. 

Press Release

English PEN is pleased to announce the shortlist for the PEN Ackerley Prize 2021 for memoir and autobiography.

The shortlisted titles are:

  • Darran Anderson, Inventory: A River, A City, A Family (Chatto & Windus)

  • Jean Sprackland, These Silent Mansions (Jonathan Cape)

  • Claire Wilcox, Patch Work: A Life Amongst Clothes (Bloomsbury)  


The PEN Ackerley Prize was established in memory of Joe Randolph Ackerley (1896–1967), the author and long-time literary editor of  The Listener  magazine. The prize is awarded annually to a literary autobiography of outstanding merit, written by an author of British nationality, and published in the UK in the previous year.

The PEN Ackerley Prize is judged by biographer and historian Peter Parker (Chair), writer and editor Michael Caines, author Georgina Hammick, and writer and critic Claire Harman. The winner receives a cheque for £3,000.

Daniel Gorman, Director, English PEN, said:  

‘Sincere congratulations to all the shortlisted authors for this year’s PEN Ackerley Prize, which aims to celebrate outstanding literary autobiography. Our deepest thanks to the panel of judges for bringing together such an excellent shortlist, the variety and breadth of which encapsulates this aim.’

Peter Parker, Chair of the Judges, said:   

‘This year the judges called in 28 autobiographies published in 2020, and from these books we selected a longlist of seven titles. The judges were once again able to meet in person (in a garden) for their final deliberations, making the process much more enjoyable than last year’s online meeting. We eventually produced a shortlist of three outstanding books.

Darran Anderson’s  Inventory  (Chatto & Windus) is subtitled ‘A River, A City, A Family,’ and these elements are closely interwoven in this story of three generations growing up in Derry.  Anderson provides a scarifying and unforgettable account of living in Northern Ireland with the Troubles as a constant and dangerous backdrop; but this is also a book about the secrets and silences that exist in most families and is distinguished by the sheer energy and inventiveness of its prose.

Jean  Sprackland’s  These Silent Mansions  (Cape) describes the author’s lifelong interest in graveyards, which she seeks out wherever she goes. These citadels of the dead supply a counterpart to what she called ‘those lived place’ we all inhabit, as well as suggesting palpable links between ourselves and those who came before us. The result is a profound, beautifully written, and wholly involving meditation on time, death and the processes of memory and memorializing.

Claire Wilcox’s Patch Work  (Bloomsbury) is an ingeniously conceived account of ‘A Life Amongst Clothes.’ A curator of fashion at the V & A, the author uses items from the collection to tell individual stories and her experience of cataloguing them to suggest ways in which we arrange the facts and incidents of our lives. As its title suggests, the book is made up of vivid scraps skillfully stitched together to create a wonderfully glancing account of her life.

We congratulate the three authors and urge everyone to buy and read these stimulating and hugely enjoyable books.’

The winner will be announced at an exclusive online event for PEN members and supporters on Wednesday 4 August 2021.

Click here to visit English PEN’s page

Winners of the

PEN Ackerley Prize


A Radical Romance

Alison Light

Fig Tree 2020


The Outrun

Amy Liptrot

Canongate 2017



Sonali Deraniyagla

Virago 2014


My Father's Fortune

Michael Frayn

Faber & Faber 2011


In My Father's House

Miranda Seymour

Simon & Schuster 2008


Half An Arch

Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy

Timewell Press 2005


Out of India: a Raj Childhood

Michael Foss

Michael O'Mara Books 2002


Precious Lives

Margaret Forster

Vintge 1999


The Railway Man

Eric Lomax

Vintage 1996


More, Please

Barry Humphries

Viking 1993


Daddy We Hardly Knew You

Germaine Greer

Randon House USA Inc 1990


After a Funeral

Diana Athill

Hamish Hamilton 1987


Still Life – Sketches from a Tunbridge Wells Childhood

Richard Cobb

Chatto & Windus 1984


Shaky Relations

Edward Blishen

David & Charles 1982


The Terrible

Yrsa Daley-Ward

Penguin Books 2019


Dead Babies and Seaside Towns

Alice Jolly

Unbound 2016


Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt

Richard Holloway

Canongate Books 2013


Direct Red

Gabriel Weston

Cape 2010


Keeping Mum

Brian Thompson

Atlantic Books 2007


Clouds of Glory-A Hoxton Childhood

Bryan Magee

Jonathan Cape 2004


Bad Blood

Lorna Sage

4th Estate 2001


True to Both My Selves

Kathrin Fitzherbert

Virago 1998


Something in Linoleum

Paul Vaughan

Sinclair-Stevenson 1995


Almost a Gentleman

John Osborne

Faber & Faber 1992


The Grass Arena

John Healy

Faber & Faber 1989


Time and Time Again

Dan Jacobson

Flamingo 1986


Her People

Kathleen Dayus
Joint winner

Virago 1983


The Day That Went Missing

Richard Beard

Harvill Secker 2018


Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery

Henry Marsh

Weidnfeld & Nicolson 2015


How to Disappear

Duncan Fallowell

Ditto Press 2012

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The Three of Us

Julia Blackburn

Vintage 2009


Untold Stories

Alan Bennett

Faber & Faber 2006


Stranger on a Train

Jenny Diski

Virago 2003


Child of My Time

Mark Frankland

Sinclair-Stevenson 2000


The Scent of Dried Roses

Tim Lott

Penguin Classics 1997


And When Did You Last See Your Father?

Blake Morrison

Granta Books 1994


St Martin's Ride

Paul Binding

Secker & Warburg 1991


Little Wilson & Big God

Anthony Burgess

Penguin Books Ltd 1988




Deceived with Kindness

Angelica Garnett

Harcourt 1985


High Path

Ted Walker
Joint winner

Routledge & Kegan Paul 1983