Monday, March 2, 2009

Christopher Nolan: poet and novelist

Alex Schadenberg
Executive Director, Euthanasia Prevention Coalition

I was saddened to read about the death of Christopher Nolan, a great poet. Nolan's life truly challenges the perception society has of people who live with significant disabilities, such as cerebral palsy. People with cerebral palsy are often live with social devaluation in our culture and are often treated like they have no quality of life. Christopher Nolan truly lived his life to the fullest.

The following is the text from the obituary that was in the Times online on February 23, 2009. It is worth reading.
Despite being born with cerebral palsy, which robbed him of speech and prevented him from moving his arms or legs, Christy Nolan became one of Ireland’s most original literary talents, winning the Whitbread Book of the Year Award for his autobiographical work Under the Eye of the Clock.

During his birth his spine was wedged into a V-shape, cutting off the oxygen supply to his brain for two hours. Both he and his mother, Bernadette, nearly died. Because of his disability, he could barely communicate with the outside world, though his mother would look into his face and try to read his thoughts.

When he was 6 she was told that he still had the brain of a baby, but he was subsequently examined by a psychologist who established that he had an IQ five years above his age. When he was 11 he was given a new drug, Lioresal, and this helped to relax the spasms in his muscles. He gained some control over his head and neck and, with the aid of a head stick, was able to type.

With infinite patience his mother held his head while he used the “unicorn” pointer attached to his forehead to pick out letters on the keyboard. It could take him 12 hours to compose enough words to cover a page. In his first letter to his aunt and uncle he wrote: “I bet you never thought you would be hearing from me! To think that I would be able to write at all was beyond my wildest dreams.”

In 1979, after an article about Nolan in The Sunday Times, a fund was set up to buy him a computer costing £2,200. Readers contributed ten times that amount, enough to establish a unit for other disabled people.

Christopher Nolan was born and grew up in Mullingar, Co Westmeath, but the family later moved to Dublin, where he attended the Central Remedial School and Mount Temple Comprehensive before moving on to Trinity College. At Mount Temple his fellow pupils included the members of the future rock band U2. Some five years older, they were leaving as he arrived but they did not forget him and their song Miracle Drug was inspired by him.

In 1981, when he was 15, Nolan’s collection of poetry, Dam-Burst of Dreams, was published by Weidenfeld. In a precocious letter to Lord Weidenfeld he wrote: “These writings are my nomadic-memory’s minted musings. If you find any of my poetry obscure I will asterisk it and give an explanation of my theme.”

Dam-Burst of Dreams was critically acclaimed for its extraordinary use of language and brought comparisons with Nolan’s compatriots, William Butler Yeats and James Joyce. A later poem celebrated one of his heroes, the disabled artist Christy Brown, who was portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis in the film My Left Foot and who died on Nolan’s 16th birthday.

Nolan was still only 21 when Under the Eye of the Clock was published in 1987. In it he recounted his struggle with disability, but using a third person narrative in which he called himself Joseph.

“Life was a constant series of challenges to the disabled boy,” he wrote, “but he faced each day as though greatly blessed by fate.”

In January 1988 he received the £20,000 Whitbread Award, having come out top in the biography category. He had attended that ceremony in a wheelchair with his mother reading out his words of thanks: “Ladies and gentlemen. Think of how you would feel just now and understand that I feel like you, my friends.” The book became a bestseller in Europe and America.

The award was not without controversy. Some felt that Nolan had won because of his disability, and Robert McCrum, editorial director of Faber and Faber, said the book was not worthy of the prize. Ben Pimlott, the historian who chaired the biography judges, was not uncritical of the work, saying while it was not mawkish there were lapses into sentimentality, but denied that it was a sympathy vote.

With the theatre director Michael Scott, Nolan adapted Under the Eye of the Clock for the stage as Torchlight and Lazer Beams, also including some of his unpublished poetry. It was produced during the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1988.

It was 12 years before Nolan’s next book, and his first novel, The Banyan Tree (1999). He started it before winning the Whitbread, but it proceeded slowly and arduously, going through two abortive drafts before he was satisfied. “The plot kept developing, going down roads I hadn’t intended,” he said. “Sometimes that meant scrapping heaps of pages.”

The Banyan Tree was set in Co Westmeath, where Nolan grew up, and inspired by two childhood images, a fox hiding in long grass and an old woman hoisting up her skirts to jump a rut in a field. The woman became his central character, Minnie O’Brien, and the novel traced her long life and the fortunes of her three children, the youngest of whom she had not seen in 30 years.

Despite his literary success, and the celebrity that came with it, Nolan continued to vent his anger at “the folk that mistake brain-damaged for brain-dead . . . I find their suspicion and their ignorance almost more horrendous than my handicap”.

Christopher Nolan, poet and novelist, was born on July 30, 1965. He died on February 20, 2009, aged 43

Link to the obituary in the London Times:


Melissa Mitchell said...

Thank you for drawing attention to this great loss to the disabled community. Christopher Nolan's work inspired me as a young girl to experiment with sharing my experience through poetry. His work, insights, and experiences are ones most in the disability community have experienced and can relate to.

FaseehUllah Irshad said...


nlgbbbblth said...

Christopher Nolan = Christy Brown