2020 - Shortlisted
How many politicians deserve a biography of 250 000 words? William McMahon is not the obvious candidate, but Tiberius with a Telephone is a substantial and surprising achievement, making a credible case for McMahon’s significance. Patrick Mullins has produced a sweeping comedy of manners reminiscent of Anthony Powell in its sophisticated handling of political and social context alongside its very readable style and feel for the absurd. He marshals the apparently trivial incident to reveal so much of how politics was done through the 1950s and 1960s.
McMahon is neither hero, nor villain. Instead Mullins has painted a satisfying picture of a complicated, driven, flawed, yet unexpectedly sympathetic figure. McMahon’s own sense of self, so often at odds with just about everyone around him, is nevertheless given its due: a conscientious political actor who many regarded as lacking conscience. Mullins cleverly interweaves McMahon’s life and times with an account of McMahon’s futile efforts to write his story: the result is a biography that not only tells much of its subject but of the nature of biographical writing itself.