Winner 2011

Winner 2011

The Fifteenth Goodchild Prize for Excellent English

The Winner

Allison Pearson, for Thou shalt happily riot to your heart’s content. The Daily Telegraph, 8/12/2011, p 33. This piece was placed first by two judges. It is a brilliantly and passionately argued attack on the Archbishop of Canterbury for his Guardian article in which he largely exonerated the people who rioted in English cities and towns in August 2011. The author has a splendid choice of words and descriptions, including some neat Biblical allusions.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is a good and thoughtful man but, by God, he comes out with some piffle. Sorry, did someone mention God? Not the Archbishop, obviously. We can rely on the head of the Anglican Church to keep Him well out of it. … The Guardian’s subjects [the interviewed rioters] were clearly flattered to discover that they had taken part in something called “civil unrest” – as opposed to yobbery, shoplifting and gleeful destruction of anything in their path, including the lives of five innocent people.

… I do think, though, that we could be forgiven for hoping Dr Rowan Williams might take a moral lead. You know the kind of thing. Thou shalt not burn down shops, causing terrified women to leap from blazing windows. Thou shalt not covet the Holy X Box in thy local Dixons.

Incredibly, the Archbishop spares not a single word for the innocent victims of the violence, or the shopkeepers who bravely fought back. Nor does he mention morality or faith, let alone his CEO, that even more richly-bearded chappie who used to go round smiting the unrighteous. Instead, Dr Williams, sounding uncannily like a spliff-smoking social worker, sympathises with the perpetrators and talks the secular language of parenting skills.

The Runner-up

Sarah Crompton, for When the real power of dance is revealed. The Daily Telegraph, 7/2/2011, p 21. This is a review of the ballet ‘Manon’ at La Scala, Milan, with wonderful descriptions of how dancers such as Margot Fonteyn and Sylvie Guillem convey emotion and meaning through dance. It explains why ballet can be so entrancing.

There was one moment when she [Fonteyn] rested her head gently on her prince’s shoulder, a pose once trusting and terrified. She seemed made of flesh and other-wordly, an enchanted princess, a swan and a breathing woman all in the same instant. It was the first time I fully understood the power of dance to convey truth without words, to be at once real and unreal.

… But then she [Guillem] sees Des Grieux. As he performs a slow solo of adoration, Guillem follows each movement with slight inclinations of her head, conveying suppressed euphoria as they begin to dance together. From there it is a pell-mell rush to the rapture of their - explicitly post-coital - duet together, a creation full of soaring lifts, abandoned runs, and, in Guillem’s reading, a girlish joy at finding love.

… when she is on stage, thought and movement become indivisible, so the unfolding of a leg, the raising of a despairing arm are the language she is speaking. In her dying throes, her desolation and terror reduced people to tears.

The five other finalists, in random order

Simon Schama, for Darkness comes before the dawn for Cairo’s sans-culottes. Financial Times, 5/2/2011, p 14. One judge ranked this much higher than the other entries, describing it as having a magisterial and exciting vigour, and commending its abandoned but skilful use of adjectives: … in the shadow of the Pyramids multitudes were on the march, spellbound by that fatal old romance: revolution. People power; the raging contagion of elated solidarity, the inebriation of sheer shoulder-to-shoulder numbers, jamming up the works of the modern world; holding a state and its self-perpetuated leader captive; smashing the aura of sovereignty; lady revolution in all the awesome topless force that Delacroix painted her.

… Though the wounds inflicted on dictatorships by the majestic effrontery of the people can be allowed to scab over, beneath the scar tissue the wound never really heals.

Harry Eyres, for Second that emotion. Financial Times, Life & Arts, 30/7/2011, p 18. Discussing reactions to the mass killings by Anders Breivik in Norway, the writer compares the outrage expressed by David Cameron with the reaction of the Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg. In this measured piece, Mr Eyres chooses words with precision and elegance and is finely discriminating.

What he [Stoltenberg] conveyed, instead, was shock, dismay, sorrow and a determination that the bombing and mass murder of teenagers by Anders Breivik should not change the country’s way of life, democratic values and commitment to human rights. … What was so moving was the restraint and dignity and solidarity of the Norwegian people, gathered in communal expression of grief.

Outrage struck me as an odd and even ironic choice of word from David Cameron, not least because this is the staple fare and fuel of newspapers such as the now-closed News of the World, The Sun, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail.

… The right words, connected to properly differentiated feelings, matter enormously at all times.

Charles Spencer, for Tired, sordid inane: just when you thought jukebox musicals could sink no lower… The Daily Telegraph, 28/9/2011, p 29. This scathing polemic is witty and very thorough, with a most descriptive first sentence: THIS is as unpleasant a pile of theatrical poo as it has ever been my misfortune to tread in.

In clear, colourful prose, he presents a range of different arguments as to why ‘Rock of Ages’ at the Shaftesbury Theatre is so awful. The show’s book is inanely predictable, lamentably written and surprisingly sordid, with its tale of how sweet innocent Sherrie is seduced and promptly dumped by a rock god called Stacee Jaxx in the gent’s lavatory of a rock bar called the Bourbon Room. In her despair she winds up as a self-loathing stripper. There is also a horribly louche narrator, like a descendant of Therisites in Shakespear’s Troilus and Cressida, who constantly sticks his tongue out at the audience in a lewd manner as he celebrates sex and drugs and rock’n’roll.

Peter Mullen, for The King of Bibles. The Daily Telegraph, 14/11/2011, p 23. The Rev Dr Peter Mullen gives the Archbishop of Canterbury a broadside for not upholding the glorious prose of the King James Bible, and shows by many examples how poor are most modern versions of the Bible, parts of which he calls vacuous, silly, banal, idiotic, or having infantilized Blue Peter language. Dr Mullen describes how the Archbishop has been a man who has been in positions of power and influence in the church for decades. For in that time the same church hierarchy has ruthlessly suppressed the King James Bible, along with the Book of Common Prayer.

… We enjoyed a parish visit recently to St George’s Chapel, Windsor: the Queen’s Chapel. In there was a big sign saying, “Celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible”. I must say, it was a custom more honoured in the breach than in the observance. For at Choral Evensong, the lessons were both from some illiterate, godforsaken modern version. I knew we were in for trouble from the start when, in the Old Testament lesson, King Solomon addressed the Almighty as, “You God…” – as if the deity were some miscreant fourth-former in the back row.

…The King James Bible was designed to be read aloud in churches. All the modern versions sound as if they have been written by tone-deaf people with tin ears and no rhythm. … And the KJV’s “great whore of Babylon” seems to have lost what is left of her character when the New Jerusalem Bible refers to her only as “the famous prostitute”. Who is this – Eskimo Nell?

Rhys Jones, for The Best … Lawn in Cambridge. Cambridge Alumni Magazine, Easter2011, No. 63, p 13. Mr Jones has managed to write, in a very small space, a delightful piece on a topic both inconsequential and significant. He begins: Cut grass is like noxious gas to me. Barely a whiff of the stuff and I’m throwing my hands to my eyes, rubbing them raw.

There is some vivid imagery: … Thorneycreek, at Robinson College, does not correspond to the typical image of a Cambridge garden: that verdant quad, boxed by four wisteria-clad walls.

Rather, it is unconfined, uneven and, when the sun cares to shine, flattened by picnic blankets and revision notes. …While I imagine there is nothing quite like standing on King’s magisterial Front Court lawn, I imagine that there is nothing quite like being tackled to the hallowed grass by a King’s porter, either.

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 because of their quality. Although we select quotations to give a flavour of each item, the whole articles are much more convincing. All the entries for this prize were pieces of journalism, especially from the Daily Telegraph.

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 2012, with a closing date of the end of February 2013 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 2012