Winner 2009

Winner 2009

The Thirteenth Goodchild Prize for Excellent English


The Winner

Jeff Randall, for Now we are all up to our ears in it. The Daily Telegraph, 24/4/2009, p25. This polemic is summed up by its subheading: Darling’s calamitous Budget not only consigned the nation to decades of debt, but also planted a poisonous legacy that will blight generations to come. It is convincingly argued with sustained vigour, relevant financial figures, great clarity and dark humour. There are many short punchy sentences. This piece is full of appropriate and original figures of speech. It starts with a quotation from Thomas Jefferson about a choice between economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude; it concludes that This useless [Labour] Government picked the wrong one.

A ball-and-chain of spirit-sapping debt has been clamped to the nation’s future. … government borrowing, which is shooting up like bindweed on steroids, choking the economy. … This style of presentation - straight from the Ceausescu handbook of statistics management - appeals to the Prime Minister’s control-freakery. … You start with a politically desirable conclusion - in this case, the triumph of a suffocating state over personal responsibility, self-sufficiency and wealth-creating enterprise - and work backwards: cheating, lying, fiddling the numbers, until both sides of the balance sheet appear to be in harmony. … Covering this claim is a wafer of credibility so thin that even a blind mole in deep sleep could see through it. … Mr Brown does still keep in touch with Prudence, but only via a Ouija board. … This is crude electioneering. It appeals largely to those who lose count past 10 fingers and toes.

The Runner-up

Norman Tebbit, for Will we ever learn from the Brighton bomb? The Daily Telegraph, 12/10/2009, p23. This is pure common sense with an important message about the dangers of giving in to terrorism. It is full of clear reasoning, being a seemingly dispassionate narrative of events, but full of pent-up anger. It lists those injured or killed by the Brighton bomb, and goes on to other innocent victims of the IRA, including the “disappeared” and members of the emergency and security services. Our politicians have not learned the lessons from all those deaths.

The IRA wreaked its violence on behalf of its masters in Sinn Fein to weaken the will of Westminster to uphold democracy in Northern Ireland. Now, encouraged by the success of violent republicanism, Islamic terrorists have the long term goal of the worldwide caliphate, and see Britain as a weak point in the defence of the West. … President George Bush even received Martin McGuiness, who was convicted of membership of the IRA, so while my heart goes out to the relatives of those who died at Lockerbie, the snivelling of American politicians at the reception accorded to Abdel Baset al-Megrahi could be described as anything from a failure of memory to a lack of balance, or stinking hypocrisy, according to taste. At least the bereaved of Lockerbie do not have to suffer the injustice and indignity poured on the bereaved of Northern Ireland, who live under a government in which a former IRA man holds ministerial office. … The shaking of their bloodstained hands, the blind eye turned to the IRA’s continued drug dealing, smuggling and extortion, the new orthodoxy claims, scarcely matter in the great scheme of things. But they forget - or choose to ignore - that in hoisting a flag emblazoned with the slogan “Peace at Any Price”, they have created a market for terrorism.

The four other finalists, in random order

Kathy Lette, for Look out! The cougars are coming.TheDaily Telegraph, 29/9/2009, p23. Unlike the two previous items, this is a light-hearted piece written for entertainment. The ideas flow easily with plenty of humour and clear expression. It does not set out be - and is not - great literature but the judges found it enjoyable and amusing, written in an appropriate style.

There’s a new creature stalking the urban jungle - the cougar. She’s a woman in her forties or fifties, on the hunt for younger men. … A toy boy’s vocabulary may be small, but who cares, when he ends every sentence with a proposition? … By contrast, younger women are so insecure. They worry about breast size, body shape, weight - they order one crouton for lunch and then share it. (Where do size zero bimbos keep their internal organs? In their handbags?) An older woman, on the other hand, is so much more relaxed in her skin. Once a woman hits 50, a liberating “now or never” mentality takes over. Forget breast implants and Botox and get a dimmer switch - the greatest sex and beauty aid known to womankind. … And just remember that age really is a case of mind over matter - if you don’t mind, it don’t matter.

Roger Scruton, for Standing on ceremony. Society News, The Wine Society, December 2009, p3. This deals with rituals of drinking in ancient Greece and modern Britain, giving details of Scruton’s likes and dislikes, sparely expressed. It was placed first by one judge who was impressed by its elegant simplicity of style and its thread of argument. He wrote: “For me, reading this article reminded me of looking at the form and proportions of the Parthenon.” Another judge felt that drinking in ancient Greece was often much less decorous than Scruton implies.

In the ancient world, wine was revered and feared as a god. As with all gods, it had to be managed through ritual. The symposium (or ‘drinking together’) invited Dionysus, god of wine, into a ceremonial precinct. … Decorous slaves filled their cups from a communal mixing bowl, in which the wine would be diluted with water, so as to postpone for as long as possible the moment of inebriation. … Manners, gestures and words were as strictly controlled as at a Japanese tea ceremony, and guests would allow each other time to speak, recite or sing, so that conversation always remained general. … We are appalled by the drunkenness in our city streets, and many are tempted to blame alcohol, since alcohol is part of its cause. But public drunkenness, of the kind that led to Prohibition, arose because people were drinking in the wrong way.

Ben Macintyre, for Once upon a time, there… oh, get on with it. The Times, 5/11/2009, p39. The subheading sums it up: Storytelling is a staple of every culture the world over. It is disappearing in an online blizzard of tiny bytes of information. This piece was placed first by one judge who wrote: “I think this writing is peerless and says something worth saying.” Its imagery is forceful.

Click, tweet, e-mail, twitter, skim, scan, blog, text: the jargon of the digital age describes the way we now read. … The information we consume online comes even faster, punchier and more fleetingly. Our attention rests only briefly on the internet page before moving incontinently on to the next electronic canapé. … If the culprit is obvious, so is the primary victim of this radically reduced attention span: the narrative, the long-form story, the tale. … Storytelling is the bedrock of civilization. From the moment we become aware of others, we demand to be told stories that allow us to make sense of the world, to inhabit the mind of someone else. … The internet is there for snacking, grazing and tasting, not for the full, six-course feast that is nourishing narrative. The consequence is an anorexic form of culture. … Narrative is not dead, merely obscured by a blizzard of byte-sized information.

Harry Eyres, for It’s not your soles that need saving. Times2, 3/9/2009. Its author cares enough about churches to wear down some shoe leather for them, and hopes that we do too. It is a polished, calm, measured plea, giving details of some of the churches he loves and which give him spiritual refreshment.

… wherever I go in the UK I gravitate towards these ancient places, the most venerable people-sheltering spaces we possess. … In fact, when I think of an English church the first image that comes to mind is of a church tower rising above the roofs of a village that are clustered round it, looking up to it for protection and inspiration. … church towers and spires hold a special place; they focus and give point to the landscape. … Enriched by the wool trade, then reduced to backwater status for centuries, Suffolk holds more than its fair share of magnificent churches, whose towers rise proudly above the gentle fields and melancholy marshlands. … What he [Larkin] didn’t recognize was that there might be a small army of people rather like himself, removing their cycle-clips “in awkward reverence”, arriving on bicycles or on foot, not necessarily to worship but pleased “to stand in silence” where the deepest human constants are held in equipoise.

Judges’ comments

The six pieces in the final assessment were of the usual high standard, on very diverse topics. As in last year’s competition, polemical pieces rather than lyrical ones dominated the finals, with the arguments coherently presented in excellent English, with interesting comparisons and figures of speech, and often grim humour. We do not judge any political or moral views, only the way in which they are expressed. Although we select quotations to give a flavour of each piece in this report, the whole articles are much more coherent and convincing than can be shown by isolated snippets.

As usual, nearly all of the items sent in were pieces of journalism. Four items by Sandi Toksvig were submitted and were of a consistently high standard, but none was quite good enough to be included among the six finalised items.

This year we welcomed Mrs Dorothy Pope as a new judge. Each judge nominates two finalists, plus two reserves, then the final six pieces are re-read by each judge, who ranks them in order of merit and writes comments on each. Some years there is clear agreement between the judges on which piece should be the winner, and sometimes there are wide differences of opinion as the judging can only be subjective.

We hope that members will send in pieces which they admire (as detailed in paragraph two of this report), for the 2010 prize. That will be for material published in 2010, with a closing date of the end of February 2011 for submissions to be sent to Dr Lamb (address, see under London Branch, inside the front cover of Quest). Items for the 2011 prize can be sent in until the end of February 2012.

Judges: Bernard Lamb (chairman), Dorothy Pope and Adrian Williams

Dr Bernard Lamb, November 2010