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Manchester Writing series welcomes Andrew Lees

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By Jamie Stewart

The final event in the Manchester Writing Series’ 2016 calendar saw Ray of Hope and The Silent Plague author Andrew Lees read from his memoir, Mentored by a Madman: The William Burroughs Experiment.

Lees is a Professor of Neurology at the National Hospital in London and has received numerous awards during his career, including the American Academy of Neurology Lifetime Achievement Award, the Association of British Neurologists Medal and the Dingbauer Prize.

Reading from his memoir, Lees presented an intensely private account of the role of William Burroughs’ writing in shaping his own career progression from student to Professor. Lees cites Burroughs, along with his own parents, as his major influences. He said, “I got into medicine with a little nudging from my parents. I really wanted to be a botanist, but Burroughs taught me about self-experimentation. I took every prescribed drug before I gave it to my patients. It was important to see the effects.”

Burroughs, however, had a deeper influence on Lees’ career than just a little nudging. The Beat legend’s journey to find the hallucinogenic drug ‘yagé’ in the rainforests of South America inspired Lees to take the same trip.

Lees explained how, at a time of scientific uncertainty, Burroughs’ famous letters to Alan Ginsberg, The Yagé Letters, inspired him to start his journey: “I had to find a way of galvanizing my own research.” Lees then experimented with yagé, gaining a clearer understanding of the drug and an insight that allowed him to follow other lines of research into Parkinson’s Disease, which led to significant developments.

Lees attributes these findings to his mentor, Burroughs: “You need a mentor outside of your own speciality, interests other than your own narrow speciality, because those interests can filter through into your work and lead to scientific development.”

He argued further that Burroughs’ contribution to the world should be acknowledged as well as his own: “He [Burroughs] was a junkie. No one paid him any attention, but he was on to something. He should be mentioned in the annals of ethno-botany.”

Reading from his memoir, Lees interwove the kingdoms of literature and medicine. More importantly, however, in a time where fears of privatisation are palpable, Lees offered a remedy to the cynicism that currently surrounds the NHS. He revealed how scientific breakthroughs are entangled with profit and bureaucracy but also the role of the compassionate practitioner in the development of ground-breaking treatments.

Postgraduates from Manchester Writing School’s MFA in Creative Writing also took to the stage to share their work. Olivia Graham shared her short story, ‘The Appointment’. She told the story of a woman, who, whilst being examined by a doctor, recounts her husband’s infidelity: “I tell him what it is. What I think it is. I’m embarrassed, of course. But it needs to be checked, and he’s the professional. He asks me a few questions about my sex life. Do I use protection? Do I have multiple partners? That sort of thing. My face gives its go-to reaction of outraged woman: how dare you I’m married!”

James Ellson read from his novel-in-progress, and, similarly to Graham, focused on a character who was unhappy with his current situation and wanted escape: “He watched the coffin’s controlled descent down into the hole. Four pallbearers slowly let out straps. Four large sombre men in black coats, black suits and black shoes, black vests and black y-fronts probably. Uniforms of death. He would have liked to have been one of them. He should have been one of them. But he was a serving prisoner at HMP Strangeways and he was wearing handcuffs.”

Natasha Leigh, an MA Creative Writing student said about the event, “Listening to Lees discuss his life and work was fascinating. The take-home message for me is to look for inspiration from a variety of sources in as many different places as possible.”

Mentored by a Madman: The William Burroughs Experiment is a blend of memoir and Beat history that breaks down the barriers between art and science, literature and medicine, and patient and practitioner. It exposes the heart of scientific research and champions interdisciplinary collaboration.

For more information about upcoming events from the Manchester Writing School, visit


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Jamie Stewart

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