Winner 2016

Winner 2016

The 20th Queen’s English Society’s Prize for Excellent English

The winner

Caroline Shearing, for Take to the skies in the Atacama. (The Daily Telegraph Travel, 15/10/2016) This was a superb piece of exemplary English, with a lyrical and evocative description of a balloon trip over the Atacama Desert of Chile. It begins:

Flames roared directly overhead as a diamond of light erupted from a volcano dominating the eastern edge of the plateau far below me to reveal a contorted landscape in all its other-worldly glory. Another burst of fire only added to the thrill of floating high above the ground. Then an enveloping silence descended. … Our arrival coincided with a flock of Chilean flamingos flying in perfect V-shaped formation as they made a final approach to what would be a splash landing. These Pink Arrows now danced to excite the carotene-rich brine shrimps which give them their distinctive colour and bring them to the surface. At the water’s edge, a fluffy Andean avocet chick flapped its tiny wings in an ineffectual effort to join nature’s most accomplished stilt walkers in their stiff-gaited ballet. … A crescent moon hung like a smile in the darkening sky, an omen of the celestial delights to come, as we returned to Alto Atacama, a low-slung, adobe-walled wilderness lodge on the fringes of San Pedro. The hotel … exuded the cool glamour of a Bond villain’s lair, with added bonus of attentive service and top-notch cooking.

The runner-up

Philip Pattenden, for Editorial. (Peterhouse [Cambridge] Annual Record 2011/2012, St Peter’s Day 2016). This was writing of a high order. The words and sentences were weighed and balanced, set out in a way that seems to carry the reader in a rhythmic conveyance on a journey to which he needs to contribute no effort, yet he reaches the end with a clear understanding of the writer’s intention.

Colleges are annually reborn: they do not mourn. There is an ever-flowing stream of new blood into a college. Unless a college is dissolved through decree or lost from financial failure, in theory it will go on for ever; and it is with the attitude that it will do so and that it is not a short-term business venture that a college’s governing body must prudently manage its affairs. A college is its members, but though it goes on, they do not endure for ever. Youth joins; but old age fades away.

The four other finalists, in random order

Giles Coren, for This was the worst thing I have ever been served in any establishment ever, anywhere in the world. (The Times Magazine, Eating Out, 8/10/2016) This is a very amusing and scathing account of a breakfast at the large and famous old Macdonald Randolph Hotel in Oxford.

… I laughed at my breakfast. Laughed so hard that it hurt my face, rattled the chandeliers and caused the mounted stag heads on the wall (if there were any, which I cannot be certain of) to turn and stare and tut. … 7 of the most appalling mushrooms I have ever seen: shrivelled, tough, cold, so that only the natural assumption that a fried breakfast will involve mushrooms prevents you from identifying them as cuttings taken from the scrotum of a tanned badger. … What they served me for breakfast at the Randolph Hotel was at best scandalous and at worst a fully illustrated announcement of the Death of the English Breakfast.

Allison Pearson, for three pieces: Poor Dave’s going through the change; Attenborough – the jewel in the BBC’s crown; Is your child stuck in revision hell? Well, diddums. (The Daily Telegraph, 11/5/2016) The first piece is a very funny skit suggesting that David Cameron is going through the menopause.

… consider the evidence. Embarrassing hot flushes in the House of Commons, the pink stain of shame scorching from collar to widow’s peak? Check. Violent mood swings as the PM lashes out at friends and foes alike? Check. Weight gain? Ahem.

In the part about Sir David Attenborough, she comments:

How lucky I was 19 years ago when this newspaper sent me to interview my hero in the Venezuelan rainforest where he was filming The Life of Birds. As a child I had always thought that I would follow David Attenborough to the ends of the earth, but this was because I had always taken it for granted that the ends of the earth would have a lavatory. … scientists had erected a crane from which our intrepid presenter would dangle above the tree canopy. … The voice that is both urgent and soothing, crystal-clear without being cut-glass, so fresh and intense on its subject that it pays no attention to itself.

The third piece is pure common sense about children taking SATs.

But that was before touchy-feely educationalists decreed that asking children questions to which they might not know the answer was a) unfair, b) discriminatory, or c) quite possibly a violation of their human rights.

Janan Ganesh, for Switch off the hype and admit television is not great art. (Financial Times, 2-3/4/2016) Ganesh picks apart the current fashion for vogueishness in a relaxed and elegant mood, mocking himself and others.

I own a TV the size of Canada, for which the rest of my flat is just a shell. This glowering matt-black thing blitzes my retinas with nothing more refined than live sport and old films. … When The Night Manager provokes ruminations on Britain’s place in the world, when Girls and Mad Men are studied for their gender politics, you can hear the sound of material being stretched beyond its tensile capacity. Modern television allows fatigued, educated professionals to feel they are improving themselves without having to work too hard. … Every drama merits the creepy spectacle of competitive binge-watching, in which adults – people with jury service under their belts and clean credit histories in their name – boast of festering on their humid sofas through 15 episodes of whatever’s modish that month.

Judith Woods, for These are the tools our children need to beat the online bullies. (The Daily Telegraph, 7/10/2016) This heartfelt article was inspired by the death of Felix Alexander, a 17-year-old who took his own life after seven years of being mercilessly bullied.

It was the remorseless trolls, the pitiless schoolmates, the carelessly cruel strangers online who took his life when they robbed him of all the things that make being alive worthwhile. Laughter, joy, companionship, acceptance, respect. … The slow torture was a poison that seeped into his bones. It began with teasing and name calling at his £13,000-a-year independent school because he – rightly – wasn’t allowed to play the X-rated violent video game, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. … We must, then, empower our children so that as they negotiate the lawlessness of virtual reality, they have the tools – not weapons – they need. Let us instil them with kindness. An old-fashioned concept, maybe, but one that urgently needs to be rehabilitated, imbued not just with morality but robustness.

The judges’ comments

The judges work with pieces sent in by members of the QES, and that is reflected in three of the six finalised pieces being from The Daily Telegraph, one from The Times and one from The Financial Times, together with a Cambridge college editorial. In future, we would like to see entries from a wider variety of sources, including books, and from a wider range of senders. We hope to receive many items published in 2017 by the end of June, 2018.

Judges: Bernard Lamb (chairman), Ray Ward, and Adrian Williams. The winner, Caroline Shearing, has kindly donated her prize to a children’s literacy charity, as did two-times previous winner, Boris Johnson.

Dr Bernard Lamb, 30th September 2017