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Two Jerwood Award Winners

In breaking news, Conville & Walsh are utterly delighted to congratulate Thomas Morris and Catherine Nixey for winning two of the three 2016 Jerwood Awards for Non-Fiction awarded tonight at the Jerwood ceremony held by the Royal Society of Literature!

The Jerwood Awards are awarded annually to new non-fiction writers who have received their first publishing contract and whose writing is underway. They offer a financial injection at a crucial time for three writers; with one author receiving £10,000 and two receiving £5,000. These prizes aim to enable writers to fulfil their projects to the highest possible ambition, whether through undertaking additional research, travel or simply allowing for the time to write.


So huge congratulations to Thomas Morris, who has been awarded the £10,000 prize for The Matter of the Heart, the unknown story of the great heart surgery history pioneers which he is writing on commission for Stuart Williams at The Bodley Head.

Thomas’s book, publication of which will be timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first successful heart transplant, will trace the rapid development of the discipline by looking at a series of crucial operations, and by considering the surgeons, patients, researchers and animals who made them possible.  Beginning with the 1943 ‘blue baby’ procedure which raised the curtain on the modern era of cardiac surgery, he will bring the story right up to date by examining some of the remarkable breakthroughs of recent years, which have made it possible to correct cardiac defects in unborn infants, or to keep a patient alive – and walking around – for months using an artificial, mechanical heart. The joy is that this truly extraordinary history has never been written for a general readership. 

Some of the research which enabled these breakthroughs was grotesque or surreal, like the Russian surgeon who successfully transplanted a puppy’s head on to an adult dog’s neck, or the American patient who spent a four-hour operation breathing through a monkey’s lungs.  Other procedures will seem fantastic to modern readers but were once commonplace: early cardiac patients were operated on in low-pressure chambers or bathtubs of cold water, for instance, while one pioneering surgeon showed that small children could be kept alive during open-heart operations by hooking them up to the circulation of a parent.  And how many people know that CPR, the basic technique taught to millions of first aiders every year, was only invented as recently as 1958 – or that the first patient to be saved by it, ‘Jude’, was taken on a world tour to publicise the new resuscitation method?

Thomas Morris himself is now 38 years-old, and recently made the decision to leave the BBC after seventeen years making programmes for Radio 4 and Radio 3.  For five years Thomas was the producer of In Our Time, the long-running series about the history of ideas presented by Melvyn Bragg. He produced over 200 episodes on a wide variety of subjects drawn from the humanities and sciences.  He also wrote scripts and programme outlines for many complex scientific and medical topics, ranging from quantum physics to the history of the eye.  His earlier radio work included spells producing Front Row, Open Book and The Film Programme.  Since 2003 he has also been a freelance contributor to The Times, writing over fifty obituaries including articles about some of the surgeons included in his book.  He has also written for publications including the Lancet, the Financial Times and the Cricketer.  He lives in London.

Heartily deserved congratulations, also, to Catherine Nixey for receiving the £5,000 award to support the writing of her first book, The Darkening Age, a popular history commissioned by Georgina Morley at Macmillan in the UK, and by Alexander Littlefield at Harcourt in America. In it, Catherine tells the largely unknown story of how the early Christians of the 3rd to 6th centuries AD deliberately destroyed the libraries, temples and learning of the ancient pagan world. There are obvious modern parallels here; and Catherine Nixey’s book also answers the big question of why so much of the ancient world’s learning had later to be unearthed from the great Arabic libraries before being re-translated into European languages, thereby sparking the Renaissance.


Why is The Darkening Age’s story so unknown? The simple answer is: propaganda. The Church was the main source of education for almost a millennium and had huge control over what was published – in places, it still does today. If you had gone into a Catholic school in the 1960s its library books would have been stamped with the Latin word “Imprimatur”, a Latin word meaning “Let it be printed”, and a sign that this book had been passed as acceptable reading for the faithful by the Catholic censor. Indeed in 2011 an American bishop became the first to grant an “imprimatur” to an iPhone app. Now, even though the censor’s pen no longer hovers ubiquitously over history books, its shadow still does: over a millennium of Church-controlled history has taken its toll on the records.

Of course the written evidence of what really happened between the Christians and the Romans is scant. Books that Christian emperors didn’t like were burned in bonfires in town squares; libraries were destroyed.  Other works were destroyed more passively by neglect: manuscripts of no interest (in other words, ones that had no Christian content) were not copied out or, at times, actually wiped to make room for Christian texts. Tantalising glimpses of a now-lost work by Cicero on politics can be seen on one scroll, for instance, sponged clean and overwritten with yet another copy of Augustine’s meditations on the psalms. As a result we have now largely forgotten the methods with which a brutal, murderous and oppressive Church impressed itself on a society that had been socially, intellectually and theologically more liberal. Today, we frequently refer to Christianity’s conquest of Europe as the “triumph of Christianity” – in other words, as a victory of which we approve. But it is worth remembering the original Roman meaning of the word “triumph”: to be a true Roman triumph it wasn’t enough that you had won, it was necessary that your enemy had been slain, and slain in their thousands. It was an annihilation.

Now 34 years-old, Catherine Nixey is a journalist, working as a critic and commissioning editor on the arts desk at The Times and also as a regular reviewer for their Books section. She has also written for the FT, the Economist’s Intelligent Life magazine, and all of the broadsheets. Before becoming a journalist, Catherine Nixey worked for some years as a Classics teacher in London, having previously studied the subject at Cambridge University.

26 Nov 2015