Winner 2010

Winner 2010

The Fourteenth Goodchild Prize for Excellent English


The Winner

Gavin Bell, for A line in the sand. The Daily Telegraph, Travel, 4/9/2010, pp 1-3. This is a vivid account of a railway journey across Namibia on the Desert Express. It is full of excellent similes and appropriate metaphors. It opens with:

At first I think it is a mirage: a lone figure, shimmering in the heat, loping through the emptiness of the Namib desert. In the distance, it is a dark spectre, diminishing as it jogs towards a towering sand dune. … Is it an illusion, a trick of the heat and dust, or the spirit of a long-dead San Bushman returned to his hunting grounds?

The author flits entertainingly between topography, sociology, history, food and philosophy. He tells us that the 230-mile railway was completed in 1902 by German settlers and soldiers on land where The San hunter-gatherers who once roamed its bone-dry gravel plains and shifting sands called it “The land God made in anger”.

His poetic description of the journey includes: … soon we are out of Windhoek and chugging through low green hills. As if glad to be free of the city, the train slackens speed and proceeds at a pace an arthritic giraffe could match. A yellow butterfly flutters by, faster than us. … The hills, the savannah, the camel thorns are gone. In their place is an endless flat nothingness of sand and rock, and in the grey half-light of dawn it has a reddish tinge. The sense of an extraterrestrial experience is heightened by a line of yellow lights twinkling on the horizon, like a lone settlement on a hostile planet.

The Runner-up

Christopher Howse, for It ain’t what you say… The Daily Telegraph, 29/10/2010, p 29. The subtitle is: As the Untouchables of India plan to open a temple to honour the English language, Christopher Howse looks at how its shifting usage defines class and culture. Here are the opening paragraphs: What is the most annoying thing you hear people say? “I was sat”, or “between you and I”, or “for free” or “Can I get a coffee?” or controversy stressed on the wrong syllable or perhaps simply the name of the letter aitch pronounced haitch?

It does seem odd that other people cannot speak their own language properly and so career (or careen as foolish folk say) like wildebeest into the crocodile-infested shallows of the latest wrong turning of the English language. …

He contrasts two camps, one of which consists of: A cast of academics, sociologists and educationalists on one side who declare that one child’s pronunciation is as valid as the teacher’s, that spelling doesn’t count and that English classes are valuably spent composing rap lyrics.

Mr Howse goes on to consider Tinchy Stryder’s hip-hop lyrics, Indian Dalits, class, politicians, Tony Blair gliding as he did in his actor’s way into what he imagined was the speech pattern of the audience before him, and English on the BBC. He comments on politicians whose idiolects are now as awash with glottal stops as is high tide in Canvey Island. … The Conservatives are as bad in their profligate manipulation of the upper trachaea to produce this substitute for orthodox consonants. Although he is to be commended for his stance against political correctness, his piece ends with an unkind dig: For my taste, the Mrs Grundies of the Queen’s English Society, for example, protest too much.

The five other finalists, in random order

John Lister-Kaye, for Why we need our wilderness. The Sunday Telegraph, 31/1/2010, p 20. The subheading is a good summary: Government schemes that lay waste to vast swathes of countryside betray a terrifying insensitivity to nature, says John Lister-Kaye. His plea for retaining wilderness areas is eloquent and heartfelt. He likes long sentences and giving lists, as of animals which have been victims of deforestation, and of forests which have been harvested, re-planted, coppiced, grazed, undergrowth-burnt for hunting, managed for tan-bark, cut over for charcoal and rootled over by domestic pigs for pannage for more than a dozen feudal centuries.

… We need places where man’s ugly footprint is not visible; places where, every now and again, we can forget our frantic selves; where we can reassess our priorities and ponder our place in the world; where we can feel a nobler sense of belonging than the crimped human community of chivvying cities and tawdry towns. … What have we done with the noun [wild] that has so loyally dogged our heels all the way from the woolly mammoth and the cave bear; what have we done to the wilds themselves?

Matthew Norman, for Tartan Terror reacquainted with his mojo. The Daily Telegraph Weekend, 18/12/2010, p W24. This is a very favourable review of a meal at the Savoy Grill, London, with many amusing and disparaging comments about Gordon Ramsay, its restaurateur. As usual, Matthew Norman keeps one waiting for more than half the article before describing the meal, but it is all pertinent and vigorously written: There was a time when Gordon Ramsey was known for a rare talent with food. Long before this paean to pugnacity mutated into a top-ranked national jester, festooning the airwaves with language more properly reserved for Today presenters and writing open letters to his in-laws, he was a cook of borderline genius and a gifted restaurateur. …

There is no denying the fierce schadenfreude caused by the slow-motion humbling of this emblem of alpha male arrogance: nor, in truth, one’s natural temptation to kick a man while he is down. However, with Ramsey’s newly reopened Savoy Grill, there is nothing for it but to doff the hat. …

… from an almost self-consciously traditionalist, neo-Edwardian menu (mutton, carrot and turnip pie, forsooth), the missus began with the most high tea-ish ingredient on offer.

Simon Heffer, for Vince is the anti-business secretary. The Daily Telegraph, 25/9/2010, p 24. The opening sentences are very clear: The great political event of this week was the transition of Vince Cable from a figure of fun to one of absurdity. His attack on capitalism showed that he doesn’t understand it. He doesn’t understand markets. He doesn’t understand banking. He doesn’t understand the City. He doesn’t really understand economics. Apart from that, he’s an absolute genius. …

Many phrases in his speech cry out to be branded the most idiotic. It is fearsomely hard to select the one that actually was, but Dr Vince’s assertion that capitalism kills competition is so obtuse that it suggests he must need a step-by-step guide to tying his shoelaces.

This is hard-hitting journalism, expressed in language which is easy to understand. It makes clever use of questions, such as the final one: Above all, why is the rest of the Tory party happily putting up with these ignorant, preening displays by the anti-Business Secretary?

Susie Boyt, for Faith in a fragile mouthful. The Financial Times, Life & Arts, 30/10/2010, p 2. This concerns madeleines, yet the author doesn’t come at her subject full tilt. She walks around the field in an elegant way to begin with, flattering the reader with literary references that he should be – or at any rate might be – acquainted with, and teasing him to work out where she is going to end up. It is an understated and cleverly constructed piece.

…things happen for no discernible reason or they simply don’t happen at all. But when you are given a 12-piece madeleine tin for a present on a Monday, and handed a beautifully printed commemorative Elizabeth David recipe for madeleines on a Tuesday (on paper made from algae that would otherwise be clogging the Venetian lagoon), you can be forgiven for thinking the gods are enjoying pleasant sport. …

And when you pair this utterly blameless confection with Elizabeth David’s irreproachable prose style, you have the perfect marriage. The simplicity, sincerity, delicacy, and austere luxury of the cake finds faultless expression in David’s beguiling plain style with its exquisite good sense and high moral authority.

Richard Morrison, for Why can’t we give classical the same pizzazz as pop? The Times, times2,3/2/2010, p 5. Writers are often not responsible for the headlines which subeditors give to their pieces, and the judges disliked this one. The rest of the article attacks the prominence given to pop music (three-minute songs written in the lifetime of the baby boomers who now run the world) at the expense of classical music, with some good turns of phrase.

It begins with: Like the swooning heroine of some Victorian bodice-ripper I’ve gone from elation to despair again in a week. First cause of despair? I learn that the Victoria and Albert Museum is withdrawing from public view its priceless collection of 260 musical instruments – to make more space for fashion displays. The V & A used to be the world’s finest museum of the decorative arts. Now it’s where you go to see exhibitions of Kylie Minogue ephemera and Grace Kelly’s frocks. …

… if music lovers can just hang on till 2012, a few instruments will reappear in the revamped furniture gallery. (Yes, furniture! As if a spinet that conjures ravishing sounds from thin air is in the same aesthetic league as a hatstand.)

Judges’ comments

The seven pieces in the final assessment were of the usual high standard, with an outstanding winner. We usually make awards to four “Other finalists”, but have made five this time as the final two received the same score. We do not judge 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 convincing than can be shown by isolated snippets. As usual, nearly all of the items sent in were pieces of journalism, especially from the Telegraph.

Each judge nominates two finalists, plus two reserves, then the final six to eight pieces (the exact number depends on whether different judges nominate the same pieces) are re-read by each judge, who ranks them in order of merit and writes comments on each.

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

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

Dr Bernard Lamb, September 2011