Celebrating medicine, the human condition, illness and health…

The Wellcome Book Prize

Yesterday I was privileged to attend a lovely ‘Bloggers Brunch’ at the Wellcome Collection in London to celebrate the shortlist for the Wellcome Book Prize.  Let me tell you a little about the background to this before I describe the event.

The Wellcome Trust, which was founded in 1936 is “an independent global charitable foundation dedicated to improving health, because good health makes life better.”  The Wellcome Collection is a “free visitor destination for the incurably curious”. Located near Euston station in London, its galleries cross medical science with art and are well worth a visit (as is the cafe and Blackwells bookshop on site). The Wellcome Book Prize has been running since 2009 and you can browse all the shortlisted books from past years here – there is a fascinating and wonderful mix, and the prize is unique in that it is open to new works of fiction or nonfiction that are concerned with medicine, the human condition, iIllness and health.

This year’s shortlist was announced by the judges (chaired by Joan Bakewell this year) a couple of weeks ago, and the prize, which is worth £30k, will be awarded on April 25th.wellcome shortlist

The shortlist comprises:

  • The Outrun by Amy Liptrot (a memoir of addiction and rehab in Orkney)
  • Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss (a novel about an early pioneering female medic)
  • It’s All In Your Head by Suzanne O’Sullivan (a medical study on psychosomatic illness)
  • Playthings by Alex Pheby (a novel about paranoia based on the ‘Schreber’ case)
  • The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink (a memoir about her brother who was in PVS)
  • Neurotribes by Steve Silberman  (a study on autism)

It was an absolute delight to meet and listen to four of the shortlisted authors talk about their books in a panel chaired by Simon Savidge before questions, and we all left with generous goody bags of the shortlisted books (THANK YOU!) which we all got signed as we chatted to the authors afterwards.

First up was Amy Liptrot who spoke to us about her experience in recovery from alcohol addiction. Amy comes from Orkney where her parents farmed, but it was moving to London that led her to a reckless lifestyle in which drink took over.  Her memoir The Outrun tells of her return to Orkney, newly dry, and how she worked with nature, birds in particular, to fill in the gaps left by drinking. In her Scottish burr, she read a passage about snorkelling for the first time in the cold clear waters which was so life-affirming, I can’t wait to read her book.

Next came Suzanne O’Sullivan who is a neurologist specialising in epilepsy and psychosomatic illness. Her book It’s All in Your Head looks at psychosomatic illness from a medical point of view, rather than psychological or psychiatric one, and includes case studies from many of her patients who were glad to have their conditions shared. Suzanne explained how it is ubiquitous, yet psychosomatic disorders are more often treated as a non-illness and there are few treatment facilities.  She hopes her book will raise awareness of the subject. When asked how it felt to be shortlisted, she became a little tearful as she said it was a huge honour.  I absolutely adore medical books of this kind and this will be the next I read from the shortlist.

Third was Alex Pheby whose novel, Playthings, does a rather brave thing. He’s taken a celebrated medical case from turn of the century Germany, which has had acres of analysis over the years, not least by Freud and the subject of the case himself, and fictionalised what happened next.  Schreber, a judge, even wrote his own memoir after two episodes in an asylum, but Pheby tells the story of his third and final bout.  Pheby was fascinating to listen to and challenged us the audience to read his book and get what all the reviews are missing (it may be, of course, that they don’t want to spoil the narrative for readers), but as I’m only a few chapters into reading this novel, which is complicated and compelling, I can’t comment on that yet!  The novel is not just about paranoia although, “We’re all wrong about everything all the time, but not as wrong as Schreber”, he said, going on to comment that it examines public policy too, “We are all roughly in a situation of being in a constant state of mental illness.”  Pheby has an interesting point of view – I hope my reading of his book will do it justice.

Finally came Cathy Rentzenbrink whose brother was critically injured when knocked down by a car walking home from the youth club when he was 16. The Last Act of Love is her account of the eight years after the accident that Matty lived in a permanent vegetative state (PVS) before the family applied to the court to let him go. It is a brutally honest book that acknowledges in the first chapter that it would have been better for him to have died rather than be kept alive so long. I read this book the other morning and didn’t stop once I’d started, it made me cry, but I also laughed and was ultimately happy for Cathy and her family. Cathy told us about how she wanted to write “funny books about adultery” – a comic version of Anna Karenina, but once she started writing a character would appear that resolved itself into her brother and she couldn’t continue. Cathy was both moving and hilarious to listen to – as she said, she loves being rent-a-voice for Front Row and the like on radio or TV far more than writing proper reviews and such-like. Her book is amazing – full review to come soon.

2016-04-03 Wellcome Book Prize Bloggers Brunch 2016(1280x945)

Apologies for the blurry photo, but it was a brilliant morning. So lovely to meet these four authors and all the blogging friends, old and new. Thank you again to the Wellcome Collection.



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