Christopher Nolan. Writer with cerebral palsy who won the Whitbread with Under the Eye of the Clock
Christopher Nolan in 1988. Photograph: News (UK)/Rex Features
Cerebral palsy meant that the Irish writer Christopher Nolan, who has died aged 43, could neither speak nor control his hands. His parents and elder sister, however, helped him – when he was 11 – with an ingenious typing system, and the words bubbling in his mind were uncorked. He soon had enough material for a first book, Dam-Burst of Dreams (1981). At the age of 15 he was highly praised by the Tennyson scholar Christopher Ricks and the Milton scholar John Carey, who called the book “a jubilant, lawless debut” in which Nolan had “plummeted into language like an avalanche, as if it were his one escape route from death – which, of course, it was”.
Nolan gave the rest of his life to writing. In Under the Eye of the Clock (1987) he described his own life; another 10 years’ effort brought a substantial saga, The Banyan Tree (1999), drawing on some of his family’s history as small-time farmers. His father Joseph partly worked as a psychiatric nurse and on the land in Mullingar, County Westmeath, where Nolan was born.
He had been awkwardly positioned in the womb; efforts to adjust this caused a loss of vital oxygen. Although his brain was damaged, Nolan would not remain the perpetual infant that one doctor dismayingly predicted. As Nolan later wrote, he composed poems in his mind at three. He thought his father at heart a storyteller and wrote of farm life that “everything emanates from the kindly kitchen” run by his mother Bernadette, who realised in 1971 that they needed to move into Dublin for his sake.
After attending the Central Remedial Clinic school, he went to Mount Temple comprehensive. Other pupils, assuming he could not understand them, sneered, and one boy let the air out of his wheelchair’s tyres. The teacher asked Nolan to indicate the suspect by a nod. She then improvised a classroom trial; when the jury could not agree, the miscreant settled matters by getting a pump – and a friendship was born. Nolan’s charm was “accept me for what I am and I’ll accept you for what you’re accepted as”. He took part in as much school life as possible, even appearing in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
One teacher’s poetry reading was a particular inspiration; so was a priest as steeped in PG Wodehouse as he was in holy writ. Nolan was aware that centuries had seen “crass crippled men dashed, branded and treated as dross in a world offended by their appearance”; kept out of sight, such people had been denied everything which his family insisted he should share with them: a list of these included feeling “the cold nervous heartbeat of a damp frog”.
After considerable struggle, partly eased by newly available Lioresal tablets which temporarily relax the neck muscles, he could use a pointer strapped to his forehead – his “unicorn”. While this tapped at a typewriter, his mother held his head. As he put it, he now “gimleted his words into white sheets of life”, which was “a glorious bountiful nightmare”. He particularly enjoyed Gerard Manley Hopkins’s adjectival compounds and sprung rhythm. Typing may have been slow, but the coining of such phrases as “sugarstick fate”, “frescoed fear” and “hollyberried imaginings” appear in a Hopkins-like cascade.
After local publicity, his story was picked up by the BBC and the Sunday Times. Lord Snowdon photographed him, and Edna Healey, a judge for a literary contest organised by the Spastics Society (which in 1994 became Scope: for People with Cerebral Palsy), said on the Radio 4 news that his poetry “was the highspot of my year”.
Dam-Burst of Dreams followed. It included poems, letters, notebook entries, stories, a short play and an autobiographical fragment related in the third person as Joseph Meehan. His mother commented that they are, “meant to give aural pleasure. I discovered that truth each time he begged me to read over and over again the sentence which he had just typed, while he sat, head averted, listening intently to the sounds and effects of his words”. When the first copy arrived, his splayed fingers dropped it on the kitchen floor.
Considerable publicity was gratifying and fatiguing. One American journalist insinuated that he had a ghost writer. Disgusted, brooding, Nolan asked his father, while out, to take him inside a church. In front of a lifesize crucifix, he swung his left arm in a two-fingered gesture. He felt better for that – and then, on a much-needed holiday at Great Skellig, forgave the journalist (and his Maker).
He began studying at Trinity College, Dublin. Much as he enjoyed immersion in Shakespeare, EM Forster, DH Lawrence and Christopher Marlowe, he needed time for his own work, and left to work on Under the Eye of the Clock. An exultant advance upon his first book, it won the 1987 Whitbread prize and is a classic autobiography. He had to keep in his head a vocabulary that makes the rest of us glad that we can reach for a dictionary.
Its success (which included a stage version in 1988) brought the family a new, bayside home in Dublin. After meeting Nolan in 1980, Phil Odor, from Edinburgh University, had developed a typing program for early home computers. That helped others, but a typewriter suited Nolan’s creative rhythm. It took a decade to produce the 150,000 words of The Banyan Tree. Although it seemed more muted than his earlier work, this farming saga’s strength has now become apparent; rich in adjectives, it should not be taken at a clip but savoured for such detail as a second twin’s “adder-like” birth.
At work on a new novel, a continual letter-writer, he died suddenly. His tremendous legacy of hope inspired stadium rockers U2’s Miracle Drug (2004). Another song, however, encapsulates his great humour: although aware that his own legs would collapse under him, he relished Nancy Sinatra’s version of These Boots are Made for Walkin’.
He is survived by his parents and sister.
• Christopher Nolan, writer, born 6 September 1965; died 20 February 2009