Some days you know are days you’ll always remember, even when they’re happening. And this was one.
Me, my partner Ronnie Hughes and our good friend and adviser of ‘all things book’ Fiona Shaw, are off to London for the day to attend an awards ceremony. The 2011 British Medical Association (BMA) Medical Book Awards have recognised my book Being Sarah. Out of nearly 700 entries it’s rated as Highly Commended in the section of Popular Medicine, which means it’s in the top 15% of books that have been reviewed. We are all delighted.
We meet at the station in Liverpool and get the train to London, happily chatting for the two hours it takes, and look at the gastronomical recommendations for our lunch from Ronnie’s friend Liam Black. The sort of restaurants that say ‘napery’, meaning table cloths. All much posher than we’re used to, but hey, this is a day off, a celebration!
We walk from Euston to the restaurant we’ve chosen. It’s the St John Restaurant near Smithfield Market which is the largest meat market in the UK, and the menu reflects this. The selections are changed daily depending on the produce available. To start I have grilled sardines with tomato, Fiona chooses brown shrimp and cabbage, and Ronnie has salsify salad (no we didn’t know what salsify was either and had to ask – it’s a slightly salty root vegetable). They are all exquisite. For our main course it’s Welsh Rarebit all round. ‘What’s that?’ my US readers are probably asking! Well, it’s a sort of posh cheese on toast. Really. A thick piece of bread, toasted, and topped with a sauce made of cheese, mustard and beer (the exact recipe varies) and then grilled until perfectly brown. Served with dressed green salad, spring greens and Worcestershire sauce (a savoury brown liquid made from anchovies and spices which kicks your taste buds). When we order the woman says through very tight lips, ‘Oh you’re all vegetarian then?’ No… just chose this tasty dish.
Anyway, did I say exquisite? Well it was. We’re much too full to consider the desserts, but they all sounded gorgeous. So it’s Assam tea (leaf not bags) in chunky brown teapots and much smirking when the woman who serves it – who has looked down on us since we asked her what salsify is – tells us it’s ‘vigorous’. Our giggling behaviour continues as we listen in to the conversations of confident braying tories from the other tables.
Back out into the sunny autumn afternoon, it is still a few hours before we need to be at the evening venue. That weightless feeling of having absolutely nothing to do. Just meander around the streets of London. We walk in sun and shade; the sun is low, the shadows are long. We nose into interesting stationery shops that sell expensive gorgeous notebooks and huge selections of handmade papers.
And as we near the venue we buy cold drinks and white chocolate and flop onto the grass in Russell Square. It’s the simple pleasure of three friends on a day off. A magical hour in the late afternoon sun. (I’m grateful to the woman sitting next to us who offered to take our photograph, it’s a great shot).
And then we stroll over to BMA House (yes, they have their own building, and what a building it is, designed by Edwin Lutyens, a major 20th century architect). I think the entrance hall is pretty grand, and bear in mind me and Fiona have been to Buckingham Palace this summer so we do know what opulent is like! But the building continues to be grander and grander. Wide hallways, thick chunky banisters, huge arched windows, full of light, and an enormous courtyard with plants and benches. There are displays of fresh flowers everywhere, white amaryllis striped with red, blue hydrangeas, orange dahlias and soft yellow and orange roses.
Getting into buildings like this just doesn’t happen that often to the likes of us. And then they give you a free glass of wine and a programme with your book details printed up! Ah. We like that. I’m excited and quickly read the review they have written about my book.
“Engagingly written in a personal but not sentimental style. Sufficient detail to make it useful to a patient; but the personal details about the impact of breast cancer on the lives of the patient and their family makes it valuable to a medical readership too.
A well-written and intelligent account of a woman’s experiences of breast cancer. The reader will learn from the many aspects of Sarah’s journey.”
I’m pleased because I am finding that my book is reaching the medical community and that’s good because it means that will change how patients are treated. I’m in a category with eight books in total, covering subjects from autism and bulimia to heart disease. None are obviously written by a patient.
The room is buzzing with the sound of several hundred people chatting to each other, photo here. The invitation said ‘smart casual’ for dress, but most people are what I would call ‘smart’. I notice a woman arrive wearing a knee length beige skirt and the most unusual black tights I’ve ever seen, lacey stripes with large stars all over them.
We are then moved upstairs, the staircase opens out at each turn with a balcony overlooking part of the building, it’s really lovely. And then we are in the Great Hall of the BMA. Yes it is very grand. An enormous space with huge pillars topped in gilded scrolls and leaves, white high walls panels displaying ancient coats of arms painted in bright colours.
The awards ceremony is well run, efficient. All the Highly Commended books in each category are read out and displayed on the screen and then one book is announced as the winner. Then the representative for that book comes up to the stage for a hand shake and a photograph with the Guest of Honour, Dr Suzy Lishman, Registrar of the Royal College of Pathologists (who later makes a very informative and lively speech about pathology). When it comes to Popular Medicine, the category Being Sarah is in, we are all wondering. Will it win? But no, the UNAIDS Outlook Report is the winner.
Well, winning would have been good, but I’m not rabid to win. No, it’s not about winning first prize, the recognition of Highly Commended is an honour in itself.
I’m wearing my red dress which I bought even before the book was born, not knowing what I would wear it for. The dress that is now a frock, that’s become my ‘Being Sarah’ official outfit. After the awards ceremony as we are standing in the queue for the buffet a woman passes me and says to me, ‘Nice dress!’ I turn and I see it’s the woman with the starry tights. ‘Nice tights!’ I say back and we both laugh.
More exquisite food, a fork buffet. Pea, broad bean and fennel risotto with butternut squash and feta salad followed by white chocolate, cherry and lavender tart. We don’t have long before the last train leaves so we eat up and chat to a few people. I’m pleased that people are interested, that they want to talk about breast cancer, to an opinionated patient. And then it’s time to leave.
We tumble onto the train and relax. Open a bottle of wine and unwind and arrive home around midnight. Happy.
My friend Jimmy Rae has an expression his father used, about ‘glass bottle days’, days that are so lovely you want to put them in a bottle to enjoy at another time. Well, we just had one of them.
The next day I am reminded by a tweet from Ben Watt of Everything But The Girl, ‘Some days are for being, not worrying.’ So true. Some days just are. Golden.