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The Wellcome Book Prize Blogger’s Brunch

A photograph of the shortlist

Saturday I attended the event this post is named for; a lovely few hours of food, drink, and conversation. As a couple of the authors mentioned (I was sat in a rocking chair just to the side of them) I took a lot of notes, so hopefully I can do justice to my scribblings. This will be a long post.

(My photographs are very poor quality. If you’d like a good look at how the event was set up, Natalie’s post shows it well.)

First I’d like to tell you about the prize itself. Started in 2009 (a previous one came before it), the Wellcome Trust awards £30,000 annually to one author of a book with a medical theme. It’s a broad description, medicine – if we take this year’s shortlist as an example, it includes works about addiction, mental illness, the effects of coma and eventual death on relatives, and autism. It’s a far-reaching concept that allows for much expression and difference and it’s yielded some fantastic winners and nominees. The Wellcome Trust itself was founded in 1936; it’s ‘a global charitable foundation dedicated to improving health by supporting bright minds in science, the humanities and social sciences, and public engagement’.

This year the judges are Joan Bakewell, Frances Balkwill, Damian Barr, Tessa Hadley, and Sathnam Sanghera. The shortlist is as follows:

Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun: a memoir of Liptrot’s journey from alcohol addiction to sobriety which took her back home to the Orkney islands.
Alex Pheby’s Playthings: historical fiction about Judge Daniel Paul Schreber who had Schizophrenia and wrote a memoir in the hope he’d be allowed out of an asylum.
Cathy Rentzenbrink’s The Last Act Of Love: a memoir of the author’s journey associated with her brother’s car accident and resulting coma and the hard decision, years later, to let him go.
Sarah Moss’s Signs For Lost Children: historical fiction about a female doctor in the late 1800s.
Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes: Non-fiction about autism and the positive side to it.
Suzanne O’Sullivan’s It’s all In Your Head: a book about psychosomatic illness – O’Sullivan is a doctor of Neurology.

A photograph of Amy Liptrot

At the event were Liptrot, O’Sullivan, Pheby, and Rentzenbrink, and I’ll be eschewing my usual mode of referring to the author by surname only in this post; it just feels right. Simon Savidge, of Savidge Reads, chaired. We began with readings and a general summary from each author.

Amy wanted her book to be more about her life post-addiction than about the addiction itself. She wanted to pick through this phase wherein she found a new lifestyle. She wrote about a great deal of what was going on but said she decided not to write about the writing part of her days because it would be too meta.

Due to her relocation to the Orkneys from London, she found herself learning a lot about the great outdoors with the result that her book became as much about nature as about her rehabilitation. She said that before she had never really been into nature, wasn’t a ‘nature geek’, but her life in Orkney moved her towards being one. She lived in a pink house provided by the RSPB, taking walks and writing every day. She noted that what she’s written about is effectively a fantasy life; she appreciated the chance to bring people to the islands. At present she’s learning about woodcutting and said she hopes to carve her own gravestone!

Suzanne chose not to read from her book, the subject matter meaning she wanted to spend more time telling us about it. She wrote about people who are judged for their disabilities – disabilities that have no cause of reason for being. Whilst judgement happens to disabled people in general, in this specific case it’s due to psychosomatic illness. Suzanne wrote about her experience of working with her patients and her perspective is positive – her reason for writing is that not much is being done about psychosomatic illness, there are no facilities to help suffers which means that people will visit their doctor only to leave without advice. Because no one has any to give. Suzanne described one patient who said she was blind – and she had a carer – but tests inferred nothing was wrong. It was only once the woman’s psychological and emotional health was worked on that her vision returned.

A photograph of Suzanne O'Sullivan

One third of all doctor visits are due to psychosomatic illness. It’s a standard part of a doctor’s everyday work but it’s treated as a non-illness and that’s why there are no resources. It’s akin to the ‘hysteria’ reported in days of old, when people were not taken seriously over things we now know are real and serious. If it’s diagnosed early enough it can be cured but this doesn’t happen for most people. Suzanne wants to change the idea it’s a lesser disease.

Of his book, Alex said there are lots of different readings to be had because it’s about a complicated person – a man who believed God would die if he himself was not cured. Judge Schreber wrote one of the most famous mental health memoirs; it showed how people can make irrational plans and be accepted but if those considered mad make irrational plans they’re not accepted. In the beginning, said Alex, the plan was to write a fictional continuation of the memoir but the fictional side took over. Alex’s book deals with how tied we are to the world and how it would be if we were untied, how we’re all in a state of mental ill-health and how is we don’t have the space and the support, we’ll be in trouble. That slippery slope.

After saying he’d like to see our interpretations of the book, Alex told us what it was he wanted to see if we caught. I can only speak for myself but my prior interest in the book only increased when he told us as it’s both something I’ve been reading about, studying, and something that is only now starting to really be discussed. We don’t talk about this thing in our world and we need to. I’ve asked Alex if he’ll write a guest post. I won’t go into it here because I’m both ill-equipped and conscious it’s the sort of thing readers might want to find out by themselves.

Cathy never wanted to tell her story and didn’t want to own it. She finds it difficult to start talking about it. She wanted to write comedy books and in that vein had us all laughing when she reiterated advice she gives as a bookseller to writers – don’t include religion at the start because it’ll put people off; don’t be a woman because it’s hard to get somewhere. Her book starts with religion and she’s a woman.

A photograph of Simon Savidge, Alex Pheby, and Cathy Rentzenbrink

Whenever Cathy started a (comedy) book she would get as far as chapter 8 or so until the story of her brother started creeping in. It took a friend telling her she could write it and put it in a drawer for her to do it and she came to realise the drawer wasn’t the right destination.

Do the authors think about readers? “The longer I can keep the reader out of things, the better,” said Alex – he needed to do so in order to write what needed to be written. Suzanne didn’t think about readers, focusing on her patients because her cause specified a need to give them respect. For Amy the reality of readers has only recently hit her. For Cathy it was the thought of readers that later kept her going.

On the point of responsibility towards those who fill the pages, Suzanne said people are desperate to have their stories told, that her patients would have preferred she were even more honest. Amy had to deal with the conflict between talking about her recovering and that second A in Alcoholic’s Anonymous. “Most interesting is the people you leave out,” said Cathy, who referred to those who had been surprised she’d not included them in her tale – by writing you’re saying ‘this is how it was’ and she’d gone by nothing but the truth, just not all of it.

It was a great morning and I would like to thank Alice and those at Wellcome, particularly Zoe, for inviting me. It was lovely to meet Natalie and see Annabel, Sakura, and Jackie again.

Have you read any of the six books? What books have you read recently that include something medical?



April 6, 2016, 1:01 pm

This is a lovely round up of a great morning!

I also found Cathy’s comment about leaving people out of the autobiography interesting. I’d never thought of that before. I hope none of my friends write an autobiography as I’m not sure I’d like to be in it – or left out!

It was lovely to meet up with you again.


April 8, 2016, 12:54 pm

Wonderful writeup Charlie, sounds like it was very enjoyable. It’s one of those genres I would probably instinctively avoid, just out of assumption. Which is silly, and I’ll have to look out of those shortlisted.


April 15, 2016, 8:16 am

Jackie: Thanks! Yes, it was interesting, wasn’t it? There’s so much about disclaimers and then arguments about portrayals and things, and then you’ve this lovely piece from Cathy. See you again most likely :)

Alice: I hadn’t heard of the prize before this, and when I read ‘medicine’ I thought of the chemistry aspects, but it’s really very diverse in this respect, so many types of books involved. From what I’ve heard of them (still not started…) I would be willing to bet you’d like Playthings and possibly The Outrun.



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