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Flashback 1987: Christopher Nolan wins the Whitbread prize


Inspiring: A young Christopher Nolan with his mother Bernadette who held his head as he typed.

Inspiring: A young Christopher Nolan with his mother Bernadette who held his head as he typed.

Inspiring: A young Christopher Nolan with his mother Bernadette who held his head as he typed.

The world of letters rose as one 29 years ago this weekend to hail the brilliance of a young Irish writer. Christopher Nolan was just 21 years of age when he won the Whitbread Book of the Year but already the quality in his writing was welcoming readers into a powerful mind trapped in a body that just wouldn't respond in the ways we all take for granted.

At a gala dinner in London his mother Bernadette read his speech in accepting the £18,750 prize.

"I want to shout with joy. My heart is full of gratitude," he had written. "Imagine, if you will, what I would have missed if the doctors had not revived me. Can it be right for man to turn on his handicapped brother and silence him before he can ever draw breath? History is now in the making. Tonight, crippled man is taking his place on the world's literary stage."

Christopher had been born in Mullingar in 1965, but because of asphyxiation at birth he suffered permanent neural impairment, known as dystonia, as well as cerebral palsy. He could move only his head and his eyes.

Bernadette and Joe Nolan were sure Christopher was a bright child and taught him a great love of words. They moved to Dublin to be near the Central Remedial Clinic in Clontarf, and he began to attend school.

Writing, and schoolwork, came slow, and hard. At the age of 11 he was fitted with a 'unicorn stick' which allowed him to tap at a typewriter when his mother held his head in her hands (pictured). It was physically exhausting and he needed regular rest, but his parents and sister Yvonne helped him bring the words to paper, sometimes at the rate of just one page per day.

The Nolans had to fight for their son to be allowed attend a mainstream school, but he flourished so much at Mount Temple that he won a scholarship to Trinity.

At 14, he wrote to the UK publisher Lord Weidenfeld, convincing him to publish his poems Damburst of Dreams, but it was the autobiographical fiction Under the Eye of the Clock which brought him international fame and won him 'bestseller' stickers in the US and Britain.

He described his writing as: "My mind is just like a spin dryer at full speed; my thoughts fly around my skull, while millions of beautiful words cascade down into my lap. Images gunfire across my consciousness and, while trying to discipline them, I jump in awe at the soul-filled bounty of my mind's expanse. Try then to imagine how frustrating it is to give expression to that avalanche in efforts of one great nod after another."

The Whitbread Awards, now the Costa Book Awards, are given to books by UK or Irish writers in five categories that are considered of high literary merit but also enjoyable reads. In 1987 Nolan was awarded the prize for biography, while the other winners were awarded to Séamus Heaney (poetry), Geraldine McCaughrean (children's book), Francis Wyndham (first novel) and Ian McEwan (novel).

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On January 19, Nolan emerged as the overall winner. The judges hailed the book as a "unique, moving, powerful account of the life so far of a young, gifted author, crippled since birth." The Irish Independent reported their citation: "In Under the Eye of the Clock, he tells the story of his extraordinary childhood, giving a rare insight into the thoughts and realities of his paralysed existence and his struggle to be understood."

Nolan went on to publish a novel, The Banyan Tree, and a stage version of Under the Eye of the Clock, and won many literary and humanitarian awards. His life and work inspired songs by his fellow Mount Temple schoolmates, U2, and also REM.

In 2009 he died in Beaumont Hospital after a piece of salmon became trapped in his airway. He was just 43 and left an unfinished novel, A Dream Awakening.

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