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. 

Click here to visit English PEN’s page

Press Release

  • Alison Light wins the PEN Ackerley Prize 2020 for her ‘thoughtful, moving and beautifully written’ memoir A Radical Romance (Fig Tree)

  • Two other books were shortlisted for the prize: Edward Parnell’s Ghostland (William Collins) and George Szirtes’s The

















The PEN Ackerley Prize was established in memory of J R Ackerley, the author and literary editor. The prize is judged by the trustees of the J R Ackerley Trust: biographer and historian Peter Parker (chair), writer and painter Colin Spencer, novelist and short story writer Georgina Hammick, and writer and critic Claire Harman.

Alison Light said:  

I am absolutely delighted to win this prize and to be in such good company – my fellow nominees, the judges who are writers themselves, and from an organisation devoted to writers and to campaigning for freedom of expression. Thank you.

Peter Parker, chair of the judges, said: 

The three books on this year’s shortlist each took refreshingly different approaches to the art of memoir, though they share a common thread about families and loss.  They also evoke a sense of place, whether it is the old house in Spitalfields Alison Light shared with her husband, the English landscapes Edward Parnell explored with his family and read about in stories of the uncanny, or the vanished world of pre-war Transylvania in which George Szirtes’s mother grew up. All three books achieve those qualities Ackerley himself set as a writer: they are properly searching, absolutely candid, and above all very well written. We cannot recommend these three books too highly, and urge everyone to buy and read them, but the winner of this year’s PEN Ackerley Prize is Alison Light’s A Radical Romance. A Radical Romance is not only an extremely frank account of a love affair and marriage between two people who came to left-wing politics through very different routes, and were instrumental in rethinking the way in which we view and record history. It also provides a vivid and funny picture of a less than comfortable life in a tumble-down Georgian house in Spitalfields while all around them developers had begun swallowing up the area. Finally, Light weaves into her narrative a fascinating enquiry into both memory and the memoir form. All these elements combined to make this thoughtful, moving and beautifully written book our unanimous choice as this year’s winner.

Daniel Gorman, director of English PEN, said: 

I’d like to congratulate this year’s PEN Ackerley Prize winner Alison Light, and I encourage everyone to read her beautiful memoir A Radical Romance. It’s an honour for us to bestow this prize in memory of a great writer and free thinker – J R Ackerley. We’re extremely proud of its reputation for celebrating the very best memoir and autobiography – the only prize of its kind in the UK.

Peter Parker also paid tribute to Colin Spencer

who is retiring as a judge this year:  

Colin has not only judged the Prize every year since its inception 38 years ago, but is the person responsible for its very existence. It was he who persuaded J R Ackerley’s sister Nancy West to endow a literary prize in her brother’s memory, and as a consequence he must have read more memoirs and autobiographies than almost anyone else living. He has seen other judges come and go and been a greatly valued colleague of them all, remaining firm in his judgments,  good humoured and even tempered throughout. We wish him well and hope that the huge amount of time now freed up from reading other people’s books can be devoted to his own writing and painting.      


The PEN Ackerley Prize is the UK’s only literary prize dedicated to memoir and autobiography. It was established in memory of J R Ackerley, the author and literary editor. The prize is judged by the trustees of the J R Ackerley Trust: biographer and historian Peter Parker (chair), writer and painter Colin Spencer, author Georgina Hammick and writer and critic Claire Harman. Further information about J R Ackerley and the prize can be found on the newly launched website: 

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