23rd September 2015
I work in a Medical School, and think a lot about disability and about ethical issues, including end of life questions. That’s why I chose this topic to judge. In the aftermath of Parliament deciding against Assisted Dying legislation, it felt relevant. Death and dying touch all of us, more and more often as we age. But it comes in different forms. For example, the same day as I was reading these entries, I heard news that an old friend had taken his own life, after a period of depression. I wish my medical students could read these entries, because they’d certainly make them think again about dying, and they’d learn some important things about families along the way.
Because ‘next of kin’ is not just about the end of life. I was delighted that writers took all sorts of ingenious approaches to this title, from the adoptive family trying to save their farm, to the student on the autistic spectrum who can’t relate to his peer group, to the divorced father desperately worried about his child’s injury. The entries were very imaginative.
The big risk with a topic like this is sentimentality, and in my view, most of the writers were guilty of being maudlin or corny at some point. I’m not too concerned about that, because I like authors like Anne Tyler, for whom all this talk of families and dying is bread and butter. Also, I am a sucker for stories involving pets or children. But my favourite entries also had a dash of humour to lighten the mood. For example, I liked the story of the anagram game show, because it celebrated female friendships rather than kin relations.
Loneliness was a big theme this week, and I think the best of those entries was the story of Jimmy the weather forecaster (1221), which speaks to the issue of terminal illness in a highly original and moving way (and importantly, features a dog). Another one of my highly commended would the story of solicitor Ella and her down and out mother (1206), which powerfully highlights how families can be places of violence as well as love. It remained with me long after I finished it. But my winning entry has to be the story of Nurse Laura and Mrs Cauldwell (1212), and not just because it was cat-related. The two ‘reveals’ in the story took me by surprise and made me smile, and it was interesting to read a sensitive discussion of the complexities of ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ in a piece of fiction. This felt a very realistic story, with some good dialogue, which avoided the sin of over-writing which afflicted some of the other entries. It also had subtext, not just the main plotline.
Congratulations to all of the writers for making me think again and again about the theme, and for writing such thoughtful pieces.
Tom Shakespeare is a sociologist, whose books include The Sexual Politics of Disability and Disability Rights and Wrongs. Formerly a staff member at the World Health Organisation, he now works at the University of East Anglia. For many years, he was involved in the Disability Arts Movement as a performer and writer. He is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 3 and 4.