The BBC reports…
And so we come again to that glorious moment, just ahead of what I hope is a restful festive season for you and your family, when I wheel out my favourite prose of the year, under the auspices of an implicit endorsement from my long dead hero.
You know, to give you a bit of holiday reading when you’ve eaten too many pies.
Welcome to the Russell Prize 2020.
Only one of the nominees this year was writing directly about the pandemic and its consequences. The winner of the Russell Prize 2020 certainly was not.
Before we get to them, I should remind you that the Russell Prize is named for my hero, Bertrand Russell, who together with George Orwell wrote the best non-fiction prose in English of anyone alive in the 20th Century. (Ernest Hemingway wrote the best fictional prose, and if you haven’t read Joan Didion’s 1998 essay on his “mysterious, thrilling” style, you haven’t lived; but we’ll leave that for another day).
The winner of the Russell Prize, 2020
Decca Aitkenhead: How a Jamaican Psychedelic Mushroom Retreat Helped Me Process My Grief
It is impossible for me – and, I hope, you – to imagine the suffering Decca Aitkenhead has endured.
In May 2014, she was on a beach in Calabash Bay, Jamaica. Her four-year-old boy was in the water, when a big wave dragged him out to sea. Her partner, Tony Wilkinson, swam out to rescue their son, which he did – but at the cost of his own life.
Aitkenhead saw him drown.
To think of how that scene must have etched itself on not just Aitkenhead but her family is itself unconscionable. To describe Wilkinson, a charity worker who was extremely handsome, as a martyr doesn’t capture the full, moral power of his impulsive decision to go into the water, or the exchange of life for death that ensued.
Aitkenhead wrote about her experience in a haunting, and haunted, memoir, All at Sea.
I do realise it is the height of vanity to insert oneself in stories of such pain felt by others, but there is a very minor connection which has always made this story particularly affect me. My wife and I spent half our honeymoon in Jamaica, on Treasure Beach, which is just next to Calabash Bay.
We were on the same beach in Calabash just 12 weeks before Aitkenhead and her family. Our son, Winston, is now four, and our daughter is one. Her name is Jamaica.
In January, Aitkenhead wrote possibly the best report I have ever read in a magazine. It chronicled her trip back to Jamaica with a friend – former Sunday Times colleague Eleanor Mills – to try psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms.
Aitkenhead reveals that a year after Wilkinson’s death, she underwent a double mastectomy and chemotherapy for breast cancer. This unbearable additional trauma, on top of her grief, while raising two children, led her to try therapy, yoga, veganism, and a bit else besides, probably. But nothing worked. A friend said try magic mushrooms. And then she read Michael Pollan.
In the Russell Prize for 2018, I mentioned that a growing band of writers, including Andrew Sullivan, were trying to create new paradigm for thinking about drugs in public life. His “Why We Should Say Yes to Drugs” was riveting. The immaturity, stupidity, ignorance, hysteria and tendentiousness with which we have talked about drugs for most of my life is ceding, giving way to a more nuanced, balanced discussion. There is also, obviously, a very fast growing policy shift across many countries, who are treating drugs mainly as a medical rather than criminal issue.
Pollan’s best-seller, How To Change Your Mind, has made him a leader of this new intellectual movement. He also changed Aitkenhead’s life.
The magazine report has a perfectly glorious arc: appalling back-story, terror in anticipation, awful first experience and then… well, I won’t give it away, but if you’re into redemptive narratives, give this one a try. And do so too, please, if you enjoy lucidity, suspense, and powerful metaphors: at times Aitkenhead’s evocation of the experience reaches heights that Hunter S Thompson would have read approvingly.
The resulting piece is, well, a trip.
I can’t say I have any evidence that dear old Bertrand Russell gave magic mushrooms a try, but I have no doubt that he would consider reading this year’s winner an education. I often wonder what he would say about legalising drugs today. “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion,” he once wrote, “for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”
Let me repeat, again, in case you’re thinking of getting angry, and sat in front of a keyboard, that I am not endorsing any position in relation to drugs, transgender issues, America, Paul McCartney or philanthropy. But I do endorse great writers and great writing.
May plain prose and erudition long outlast the injustices our esteemed writers have sought to vanquish.