The Sixteenth Goodchild Prize for Excellent English
Boris Johnson, for Not a single penny more for the EU’s begging bowl. The Daily Telegraph, 19/11/2012, p 33. This piece was placed first by two judges. It is lively, topical, well-researched and heartfelt, with Boris’s typical Man-of-the-People touches, including the occasional cliché. He builds his arguments and individual sentences well.
When David Cameron goes to the EU summit this week, I have absolutely no doubt that he will veto this package, and not only will he have every sensible person in this country – and the rest of Europe – cheering him on, he will be right politically, intellectually, morally and on just about every ground you can imagine.
…The people in Brussels must have been out of their tiny minds. It is like giving heroin to an addict. It is like handing an ice cream to the fattest boy in the class, while the rest of the kids are on starvation diets – and then asking them to pay for his treat.
Of the fraudulent payment for 150 non-existent sheep to a Spanish farmer, deemed ‘irregular’ by the EU court, Boris wrote:
Irregular! It wasn’t irregular – it was a swindle. It was theft from you and me.
…They must stop the waste and the fraud, says the EU Commission, before they have any hope of more bail-out funds. And yet these same EU officials preside over a vast and larcenous abuse of public funds, and now have the effrontery to tell us that they need a massive above-inflation increase to pay, inter alia, for the great unreformed caravanserai between Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg.
Simon Schama, for Why I write. Financial Times, 15-16/9/2012, p 1. This was placed first by one judge, who wrote: This is writing of the highest order. It’s the best piece I can recall since Philip Pattenden won the prize way back in 2000. Schama has strong opinions on various authors, and his vocabulary is a joy.
My teenage heroes were elsewhere: the dithyrambic, mischievous Laurence Sterne; the mad mystic Herman Melville with his cetacean hulk of a book that was about everything: and above all, Charles Dickens, whom my father read out loud after supper and whose expansive, elastic manner seemed at the opposite pole from Orwell’s taut asperity.
…It was the dancing riot of Dickens’ sentences; their bounding exuberance; the overstuffed abundance of names, places, happenings, the operatic manipulation of emotion, that made him seem to me if not the best then the heartiest writer of English prose there ever has been.
…I resented the inexplicable absence of Dickens from our school syllabus, dominated as it was in the late 1950s by the epitomes of the “great Tradition”, laid down by the Cambridge don FR Leavis with a Talmudic sense of the permitted and the forbidden.
And so he carries the argument along, swinging and whacking and tilting and ducking, and cheerfully admitting that “sheer egoism” is his main driving force, just as it was Orwell’s. There is much quoted material from other authors but it is all pertinent in explaining Schama’s compulsion to tell others why he writes.
The four other finalists, in random order
Petronella Wyatt, for I was bullied out of Oxford for being a Tory. The Daily Telegraph, 1/12/2012, p 33. The title is very clear: Miss Wyatt was subjected to appalling bullying just for being a Conservative at a university which should have upheld students’ rights to their own views. She tells her story in an affecting and honest way.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t dream of winning a place at Oxford University. Both my father and my elder brother had been at what I imagined was the world’s greatest seat of learning, a modern-day wine-blushed Greek symposium encouraging the dual pillars of civilisation – free thinking and tolerance.
…I ran away. Yes, ran, because I had been subject to systematic bullying and intimidation. …in this cradle of supposed enlightenment it was both bigoted and barbaric: my father, the late Woodrow Wyatt, was a high-profile adviser to Margaret Thatcher and I was a Conservative supporter.
…It was my father who drove the nail into the coffin of my Oxford career. At the time, he wrote two columns in the Murdoch press each week. Early one morning a group of undergraduates began banging on my door. I heard vicious shouts. My father had written a piece supporting Margaret Thatcher’s stance against South African sanctions. “Let’s lynch her dad. I bet he’d like to lynch coloured people. Does he call them niggers? Let’s lynch you. Like father like daughter.”
Tim Wilson, for A card from Karachi. The Big Issue, December 2012. This was our first ever entry from The Big Issue, and was in a section by homeless or ex-homeless people, in this case by a ‘New Traveller’. It is a very intense short story, only five paragraphs long, written in very short sentences, as might be appropriate for a 10-year-old schoolgirl in Karachi.
My name is Saalima. I am 10 years old. … The last time I went I was five. …A belly twisted with emptiness, the screaming hunger of my baby brother, these are what force me into labour. …My father, like the promises [of coming to Karachi], ended up broken.
I push the cloth beneath the attacking needle, rapid puncture wounds as thread tattoos cotton.
In the stinking factory where she worked, a boiler exploded and drums of formaldehyde burst into flame.
A coiling inferno swallowed the building from the ground up. On my sister’s floor frantic workers threw sewing machines at the few unbarred windows. Many jumped. Not Enny. The smoke took her. At least, I hope it did.
Although the style of the story was unusual, the judges appreciated its tautness and directness.
Boris Johnson, for Paralympians have more of the Right Stuff than anyone on Earth. The Daily Telegraph, 27/8/2012, p 16. This uplifting article begins with the bravery of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, when one mistake would have meant certain death.
...he was changing the self-perception of the human race: no longer were we dull, sublunary prisoners of gravity. We could walk – gambol – on the Moon, an entity our ancestors had worshipped as a god.
…you could see how the first American astronauts would guide themselves through the heavens. They used bits of graph paper, and slide rules, and sextants, like mariners navigating by the position of the stars and the Sun. …We were watching a triumph of the human spirit – and that, of course, is exactly why so many people are getting ready to enjoy this week’s Paralympic games.
…the Paralympians have had to overcome adversity in a way that is mesmerising, heartbreaking and inspiring. …These people have the Right Stuff by the bucketload, exploding from every pore. …It is the human urge to try, to risk, to dare, to master our fear and dive in; and then to keep doing the same until we succeed.
Rory Stewart, for James Cameron shows adventure is not just for films. Financial Times, 31/3-1/4/2012, p 11. This is an article in praise of heroism and adventure, with many historical references. Stewart is good at selecting and marshalling his material. He ranges from Alexander to American explorers to Mohammed, and from there to 19th century politicians and Tolstoy and so on, to build up an ineluctable case for the merits of Adventure. He has an ear for the rhythm of prose, pitching short sentence again shorter and then striding off into the argument at an easy canter.
The scientific data that he [James Cameron] acquired may be of minor significance. His adventure is not. Adventurers matter. It was the desire to be a hero that drew Alexander to march his tiny army across the desert and attack the massed forces of the Persian king at Babylon…
…Today, our culture finds little comfortable in a heroic worldview and works to prevent it. Death is now to be pitied and discouraged, not admired. … (Those limited heroes that we still allow, who are not celebrities, must be accidental; unconscious of their heroism and not initiators but victims).
Heroic virtues are not single actions but part of an entire texture of society – of structures, of educations, of opportunities, of vocabulary – which we have lost and now mistrust.
These six pieces show a wide range of styles and purposes, with opinions, personal narratives and a short story. The judges pay more attention to the quality of the English than to the subject matter as this is a prize for Excellent English. Most of the pieces submitted by our QES members are of journalism from leading newspapers, and some of the best pieces of journalism are in very good English, although we note a few errors of punctuation and some clichés. We would welcome a wider selection of entries, especially some from books.
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 2013, with a closing date of the end of February 2014 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 2013