Winner 2013

Winner 2013

The Seventeenth Arthur and Marjorie Goodchild Prize for Excellent English

The Winner

Boris Johnson, for The weather prophets should be chucked into the deep end.The Daily Telegraph, 24/6/2013, p 18. This is written in his usual amusing style, yet with an underlying seriousness to make the reader see things as he does. He has an astonishing ability to conjure up images and makes one go along with his exaggerations. There are sinuous sentences with sinuous arguments, then a sudden short opening sentence to a new paragraph: This is outrageous. His descriptions of the problems of having a swimming pool are brilliant. The piece ends with a clever Anglo-French pun.

Look down on southern England and you see the little winking ultramarine oblongs of the swimming pools – perhaps the greatest triumph of hope over experience in the history of English domestic architecture. …They fought gallantly but in vain against the green slime, and to understand the balance of chemicals that the pool required; and they watched baffled as it oscillated – now choking with vegetation, now a glorified sheep dip of eye-stinging acid. Year after year they summoned up their courage, choked back their nausea and fished out the dead mice and the pallid corpses of worms bleached white by the chlorine. … I am generally against the compensation culture, but in my mind’s eye I see a class action: aggrieved English pool-owners against the global warming prophets and the erroneous meteorologists who have, frankly, been taking the piscine.

The Runner-up

Cristina Odone, for If we can’t call it evil, we can’t fight it.The Sunday Telegraph, 4/8/2013, p 25. This is a calm, rational exposé of a grave social problem. She shows how the use of bland words such as “inappropriate”, instead of “evil” for child murder has dire consequences for justice. Its directness is shown by one short sentence: Whom to blame? and by the passage quoted below about race and religion.The article is strongly argued, with excellent examples. It has a very persuasive use of English and is about the effects of the (mis)use of English.

Then the MP for Coventry departed from the usual script and spoke of evil. …The word is so out of use, it jarred. Evil? We no longer accept that the concept exists. Worse, we don’t know it when we see it, right under our noses. “Evil” describes villains in Harry Potter, not Coventry in 2013. … Decades of bureaucratising have flattened the complex term into more manageable expressions. The banalities for evil now include “inappropriate”, “not fit for purpose”, and even, in the verdict of Daniel’s [the murdered boy’s] headmaster, “not pleasant”. (Broken arms, emaciated body, and a serial offender as a stepfather; if these are unpleasant, goodness knows what the head calls bad.) … Abuse of power starts with abuse of language. The secret-police regimes of eastern Europe knew that (my husband, a foreign correspondent, saw his own Stasi file, but found the pedantic, convoluted phrases so heavy-going, he had to force himself to read them).

Even in today’s Britain, it’s difficult to spot depravity lurking in bland, abstract words, appendices and subordinate clauses, in the verbing of nouns and the nouning of verbs. ... The language of officialdom is calculated to bore, not to make the blood boil. Yet blood does have to boil for justice to be meted out. … Hiding behind the officially prescribed lexicon, they can pussyfoot around the race of the gangs grooming young girls; they can avoid all references to colour, religion and sexual preferences in their caseload.

The four other finalists, in random order

Lucy Hughes-Hallett, for extracts from the book, The Pike: Gabrielle d’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War(Fourth Estate, London, 2013). She writes about her subject as if he were the most marvellous, exciting, brave, charismatic person who ever lived, yet in paragraph after paragraph she manages to let you know that, in reality, he was despicable. There is hardly a passage in which she does not startle and delight the reader, with images as sharp as one of those old full-plate sepia photographs: A gusty wind raised whirling man-high funnels of ash, veering, dipping and dissolving among the ruined woods like ghosts.

The excellent opening passage sums up Gabriele d’Annunzio and the weakness of the Italian army. There are some delightful descriptions of him and his followers. The author keeps up a flow of interesting historical information in good descriptive English.

IN SEPTEMBER 1919, Gabriele d’Annunzio – poet, aviator, nationalist demagogue, war hero - assumed the leadership of 186 mutineers from the Italian army. Driving in a bright red Fiat so full of flowers that one observer mistook for a hearse (d’Annunzio adored flowers), he led them in a march on the harbour city of Fiume in Croatia, part of the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire over whose dismemberment the victorious Allied leaders were deliberating in Paris. ...

Gabriele d’Annunzio was man of vehement, but incoherent, political views. As the greatest Italian poet, in his own (and many others’) estimation, since Dante, he was il Vate, the national bard. … Fiume in 1919 was as magnetic to an international confraternity of discontented idealists as San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury would be in 1968; but, unlike the hippies, d’Annunzio’s followers intended to make war as well as love.

Jeff Randall, for Who will end this pensions scandal? Politicians have been waging war on the retirement plans of ordinary savers. It has to stop. The Daily Telegraph, 30/9/2013, p 23.

The opening part of this was the most excellent English in all the entries. There is a brilliant series of metaphors and similes about party conference promises, especially deciduous assurances.

It’s party conference season, a time of year when promises blow around the main halls and fringe meetings like autumn leaves on a windy day. Many of these deciduous assurances will barely make it through winter before being discredited or disavowed. Today’s headlines quickly become tomorrow’s political mulch. … Of those made so far, none is more surely destined for a pre-Christmas bonfire than Ed Miliband’s pledge that “we are not going to be able to spend money we don’t have”. How he delivered that without choking on dissemblance is beyond me.

Considering that economics is sometimes called ‘the dismal science’, Jeff Randall’s passionate and timely marshalling of facts into a well-argued, well written, case in lively English is very well done. He makes it all relevant to so many people, which of course it is, as pensions affect them deeply. Both main parties are justifiably attacked.

This degrading of long-term savings was accelerated by Gordon Brown’s decision in 1997 to abolish tax relief on pension fund dividends. It was delivered with the impact of a stealth bomber. … The Chancellor, it seems, is hoping that nobody will notice the contrast between the warmth of his words for “strivers” and the cold-blooded willingness with which he continues to bend the tax system, as it relates to private pensions, against them.

Harry Mount, for Children can’t think if they don’t learn facts. The Daily Telegraph, 21/3/2013, p 27. This is full of excellent clear arguments and uncommonly good sense, expressed in effective, lively English. The pace never flags and there are plenty of questions asked of the reader. The opening paragraph tells us what the article is about. Later, there are many enjoyable turns of phrase, such as floundering in a knowledge-free vacuum, and riddled with the ignorance-is-good philosophy cooked up by muddle-headed educationalists for the past 50 years.

When future generations come to study the causes of Britain’s global decline, Exhibit A will be a letter in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph, signed by 100 academics from across the country. In it, the various professors attacked Michael Gove’s proposed national curriculum for consisting of “endless spellings, facts and rules”. My God, the madness! … His opponents are of such a deep strain of perverse idiocy that it is impossible to argue with them – ideology has defeated reason. … If the people at the top of the educational tree are anti-knowledge, what chance is there for the children starting out at the bottom? … The “spellings, fact and rules” that these clever fools are attacking have another name – an education. Without spellings, facts and rules, you aren’t educated. Instead you’re left floundering in a knowledge-free vacuum, barely comforted by the progressive lie that ignorance somehow magically generates thought.

One judge wrote, ‘As a vocational teacher who fled, took early retirement from, school teaching because of the lunacy in education, I hail the content of this article and earn a living feeding grammar, spelling rules and poetry to the hungry. Knowledge is better than ignorance and language is the tool of thought. … The accuracy of grammar in this piece is flawless, the arguing cogent and sustained, the mood raging.

Harry Eyres, for The clutter of love. Financial Times, Life & Arts Supplement, 24/25/8/2013, p 16. Declaring that he loves clutter, he describes the sorting and clearing out of his parents’ large and full house where they had lived for 56 years. He advises that, If you throw out too fast or thoughtlessly, you are in danger of snapping loving attachments that need to be teased out, with patience and care.Being weighed down and hemmed in by stuff affects our emotional and spiritual life, intensifying the pain of attachment.

There is much nostalgia in this well-constructed article. The selection of items quoted reveals his hoarder father’s history: the wooden tennis racquets, golf clubs, his Scots Guards uniform from 1948, the Country Life and Gramophone magazines, the shellac and vinyl records, then CDs. The part about the darkroom and its chemicals was evocative for those who remember such smells, a diminishing number in this digital age: I loved the darkroom, fitted with enlarging and developing equipment dating back to the 1930s; the orange safelight, the chipped enamel trays, the smell of the chemicals. There was a good description of his grandmother: And there too, as a proof that she had not always been old and ill, was a photograph of her as a stunning Edwardian beauty, with elbow-length gloves and a bouquet of lilies.

Judges’ comments

These six pieces show a wide range of styles and purposes, mainly newspaper articles of varying degrees of seriousness, but also with humour. It was a pleasure to find extracts from a book reaching the finals, and it was put first by one judge. 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 articles from leading newspapers. Many of the best pieces of journalism are in very good English, and some tongue-in-cheek clichés can be appropriate. We would welcome a wider selection of entries.

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 2014, with a closing date of the end of February 2015 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 2014