Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life wins 28th William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award

“Compelling, elegiac and profound” memoir becomes surfing’s first Bookie Prize winner

Barbarian DaysBarbarian Days, the acclaimed memoir of New Yorker journalist William Finnegan’s surfing life has today (Thursday 24th November) been named the winner of the 28th William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award, the richest and most prestigious sports writing prize in the world. The book, only surfing’s second appearance on a Bookie Prize shortlist and the first since 1991, has already won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography this year, and was on President Obama’s summer reading list.

Described by the judges as “compelling, elegiac and profound”, Barbarian Days tells of how young Bill Finnegan caught the surfing bug in 1960s California and Hawaii, before travelling the world looking for beaches that offered undiscovered waves to master. It is also the story of an outsider realising his place in the world, of the ties of friendship and family that bind even the most wayward spirit to a notion of home, and of how while globalisation may have taken surfing mainstream, the code and language of the surfer remain a near impenetrable mystery to the uninitiated.

Broadcaster and journalist Mark Lawson, joining the judging panel for the first time this year, said:
“Although the author himself acknowledges the scepticism of some about whether surfing is a sport, the judges felt that Finnegan's account of the physical and psychological drive to achieve athletic perfection make Barbarian Days a worthy winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award. The autobiographical detail and precision of the writing also make it rewarding to those who might think they would struggle to get on board with surfing as a subject.”

Finnegan was announced as the winner of the 2016 Award by judge and broadcaster John Inverdale at an afternoon ceremony at BAFTA in central London. An award-winning journalist who has travelled extensively for both work and the pursuit of his sport, Finnegan has been a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine for nearly 30 years. Now in his 60s, Finnegan is still active in the sport and has no plans to stop surfing.

William Hill spokesman and co-founder and Chair of the Award, Graham Sharpe, said:
“Compelling, elegiac and profound throughout, Barbarian Days offers a revelatory and often dramatic study of the elegant art of surfing. As we follow William Finnegan’s story we see not just the maturing of a boy into a man, but of a rebellious soul coming to terms with society on his own terms. We also see, as we so often do, how sport reflects politics, economics and an ever-shrinking world, as surfers fight to protect their hidden beaches and continue their search for new waves to master. It’s a widescreen, technicolour winner: with a Pulitzer Prize and now the Bookie Prize to its name, surely Hollywood cannot be far behind.”

As well as a £28,000 cheque, Finnegan was awarded a William Hill bet worth £2,500 and an exclusive day at the races. He now joins an illustrious list of past winners including Nick Hornby, Duncan Hamilton, Donald McRae, Anna Krien and David Goldblatt.

In taking the prize, Finnegan triumphed in a shortlist referred to by Sharpe as “a ‘Magnificent Seven’ of sporting books”. His competition included fellow American Diana Nyad for her memoir of a record-breaking long-distance swimming career, Find a Way, Rick Broadbent’s biography of Czech Olympic legend Emil Zátopek, Endurance, and Australian broadcaster Tim Lane and editor and author Elliot Cartledge’s investigation into the life and death of controversial cricketer and commentator Peter Roebuck, Chasing Shadows. Football was the subject of two entries, Oliver Kay’s biography of “football’s lost genius” Adrian Doherty, Forever Young, and Rory Smith’s study of how English football managers helped export the game around the world, Mister. Rounding off the shortlist was Christopher McGrath’s history of horse racing through the lives of 25 horses and those that owned them, Mr Darley’s Arabian.

The judging panel for this year’s Award consisted of: journalist and broadcaster Mark Lawson; retired professional footballer and former chairman of the Professional Footballer’s Association, Clarke Carlisle; broadcaster and writer John Inverdale; broadcaster Danny Kelly; award-winning journalist Hugh McIlvanney; and The Times columnist and author, Alyson Rudd. Chair of Judges was Graham Sharpe, co-creator of the Award alongside John Gaustad, founder of the Sportspages bookshop, who retired following the 2015 Award and passed away earlier this year.

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan is published by Corsair.