BOOKS / The state of the heart: The Mind Book of the Year Award may be a little-known prize, but it lets the voiceless speak volumes about the society we live in. Fay Weldon, one of its judges, explains

Fay Weldon
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:13

THE FIRST annual Mind Book of the Year / Allen Lane Award was won by Sheila MacLeod for her excellent novel The Art of Starvation. That was in 1981. I've been involved as a judge on and off ever since and have watched the award go through, as they say of children, many changes. It has changed just as our communal view of 'mental health' and 'mental illness' has changed, and as, for good or bad, mental institutions have changed, opening their gates and moving their occupants out into community care (where, not least through this prize, some have begun to find their own voices and no longer rely on others to speak for them). A lot can happen in 12 years.

The award started 'literary', drifted through the artistic towards the social-

realist, and has now ended up stoutly user- friendly. The 'users' are what used to be called 'patients', or even - now our prisons are so full of those who used to be kept in more benign sanctuaries - 'prisoners'. For good reason, Mind is hot on terminology. Better to be called an 'unmarried mother' than a 'moral imbecile' (and be shut up in Bedlam for life as a result); better still, no matter how the well-heeled mainstream laugh, to be described as 'head of a one-parent family'. Descriptions and definitions, down there at the client end of

society, can make a difference not just to how you see yourself, how you keep your dignity, but to the amount of your social security benefit, the number of years the judge gives you, what medication you get, who feels entitled to beat you up if you're institutionalised.

In these circumstances it behoves the Mind judges to tread carefully: if they end up examining not just the books but the prize itself and indeed themselves, it isn't surprising.

The award still keeps one foot in the literary camp. Sir Allen Lane it was, let me remind you, who started Penguin books, the first of the paperback houses, in 1935. The idea came to him, according to my mother, at dinner in my grandfather's house on the lower Hampstead slopes. (My grandfather was Edgar Jepson, a bestselling novelist of his day, greatly suspicious of the motives and accounting procedures of publishers; this suspicion, I have come to believe, is an inheritable trait.) Allen Lane was the unstuffy young nephew of John Lane, founder of the Bodley Head. In those days publishers liked to be seen as gentlemen: and 'trade', or selling, was hardly gentlemanly. Allen presented himself as quite a problem to his family in his determination to sell books and not just publish them.

This, I imagine, is how the conversation went. (If literary biographers can do this kind of thing, taking imaginative leaps into the middle of long-dead conversations, as if they'd been there, why then so can I)

'I have a great new idea,' said Allen, all excited, over sherry before dinner. 'We must bring culture to the masses.'

'Sed fugit interea, fugit inreparabile tempus,' said my grandfather, who'd had a classical education. 'Then you'd better get a move on] How do you mean to do it?'

'Hardbacks are far too expensive,' said Allen. 'Why, what my uncle publishes for six shillings, I can reprint for sixpence.'

'But people who can afford only sixpence for a book,' said my grandfather, 'aren't going to want to read great books. You're wasting your time.'

'I am not,' said Allen, 'and one day they'll thank me as the populariser and educator I am at heart. Possibly even with a knighthood.'

My grandfather thought for a little. 'Sixpence]' he mused. 'And how much will the writers get?'

'I don't know,' replied Allen. 'A farthing, I suppose.' (This was then the smallest coin, worth a quarter of a penny.)

'A farthing to the writer]' exclaimed my grandfather. 'Ave Caesar, morituri te salutant,' which, as everyone knows, means 'Hail Caesar, those who are about to die salute thee.'

My grandfather was accurate in his assessment. This new move into cheap editions would do writers no good. But ours is not to carp, merely to write on and award each other prizes. What was not so hot for writers was good news for readers, and for the upstart Penguin and, eventually, for Mind, which for all its good works and successes has always struggled for funds. The Allen Lane Trust supports charitable causes and in 1981 the two organisations got together to create the Mind Book of the Year / Allen Lane Award; not the snappiest title, I grant you, but one of the most interesting and rewarding to judge. Unusually for a book prize, the Mind award is rather more indicative of the state of the country than it is of the state of literature. What you find out is not necessarily pleasant, but it is certainly what you ought to know.

The Booker Prize is vague to the point of agony about what its judges are meant to be doing, and the Whitbread refers enigmatically to 'best'. Choosing winners of those prizes is rather like trying to select the 'best' from a bag of liquorice allsorts, the discussion tending to end up in the mode of 'Oh, I like the round ones best, with the crumby bits', or 'Well I don't. I like the squared layers; you can ease them apart with your teeth'. Happily for the judges of the Mind Award - this year the novelist Michele Roberts, Blake Morrison of this newspaper, and myself - its terms are at least specific. The award goes to the title which makes 'the most significant contribution to public awareness of mental health problems'. At least we know what we're looking for, though the word 'mental' is beginning to appear a little frayed, we think - 'emotional' would seem more exact.

For the Booker Prize the judges read all submissions. In many other prizes, including the Mind Award, there are worker- judges to arrive at the shortlist; the named judges, if so I may call them, who deliberate among the shortlist, have the appearance of power, but not the real power. The shortlist for the Mind Award this year was chosen by three worker-judges from that organisation and gives a clear idea of how they themselves see the prize. The 1993 shortlist (I quote from Mind's national director, Judi Clements) reflects 'a number of Mind's serious concerns: the often scandalous conditions in our psychiatric hospitals, coupled to inappropriate care regimes, the need to recognise cultural diversity, the importance for users of the mental health system to have a say in their own treatment and support, violence to children and all its ramifications for later life'. Mind puts it formally, in the new cautious language with which bureaucracy speaks to itself and its funding bodies, not wanting to frighten anybody too much in case it frightens them away altogether. The books themselves tell a tale of human distress that's both violent and vivid, and shaming to the society we are content to live in.

Jimmy Laing's autobiography, Fifty Years in the System (Corgi pounds 5.99), tells of a gentle and intelligent man much wronged and insulted, but optimistic about the possibility of change, both personal and institutional. Times do get better, thanks to changing public perception of what the institutionalised 'deserve' by way of casual cruelty and humiliation; though it's due to luck rather than to anyone's good judgement that Jimmy Laing is out, married and functioning; that he survived the beatings and abuse of his early days. Mark Leech's book, A Product of the System: My Life in and out of Prison (Gollancz pounds 15.99/ pounds 6.99), with its graphic descriptions, again, of the physical and sexual abuse that is the daily lot of those who happen to fall foul of society when young, still offers hope about personal reform within the prison system.

Survivors' Poetry: From Dark to Light (Survivors' Press pounds 5.95), an anthology of verse from mental health service survivors (for it seems to have come to this), is at times almost unbearably moving, as the gifted and the sensitive struggle for expression, sometimes crudely, sometimes with exquisite skill, in a world which has such trouble listening. Joan Riley's novel A Kindness to the Children (The Women's Press pounds 6.99) - the one piece of fiction on the shortlist - is set in the Caribbean. It allows the reader no way out, no room for our desire to blame others and claim goodness for ourselves.

Moira Walker's Surviving Secrets (Open University Press pounds 11.99) presents a world of helpers and child-abuse survivors, struggling together for acknowledgement of the 'flash-back memories' which reveal, or so it is alleged, the facts of childhood sexual trauma. A contentious area, this one, as the West, falling yet again into witch-hunting hysteria, comes up against Freud's original quandary: did it really happen or do people (men, women, children) just believe it happened so vividly that it might as well have happened? And we see 'I blame the father' take over from 'I blame the mother'. Which I suppose is something.

None of these books is likely to get on to a Booker or a Whitbread shortlist: 'literature' is not what concerns us here, but effectiveness, accessibility, honesty, optimism and helpfulness, and these the shortlisted books have in abundance. And it's the optimism, albeit the optimism of despair, when there is no other way to go, which gets to the hapless judge, presented suddenly with the real world, not the literary one.

The Mind Book of the Year / Allen Lane Award will be presented on Tuesday at the Barbican Centre, London.

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