The 22nd Queen’s English Society’s Prize for Excellent English
Robert Peal, for Progressively Worse: The burden of bad ideas in British Schools (Civitas, 2014). This was judged from the Introduction, which described the core themes of ‘progressive education’: education should be child-centred; knowledge is not central to education; strict discipline and moral education are oppressive; socio-economic background dictates success. Peal’s arguments against these notions were brilliantly and convincingly given, in expertly constructed sentences. The English and the ideas flowed easily and logically. There was a good use of questions and answers. This was not a showy piece, but it revealed depth in thinking, research and reading, as well as being based on his own experience of teaching in schools.
…Progressive educationists do not believe that schools have the moral authority to influence the character formation of the pupil. Instead, they take a rationalist view of a child’s moral formation, which suggests the school should give pupils the requisite information to reach moral conclusions independently, a change summed up by the mantra ‘teach, don’t preach’. … Progressive education has been in the ascendancy for nearly half a century, and has directly coincided with a prolonged crisis of poor behaviour and academic underachievement in British schools. It is high time we held it accountable for the effect it has had, and freed our schools from this burden of bad ideas.
Nick Coni, for Not a Lot of it About. The Royal Society of Medicine, Retired Fellows Society Newsletter, August 2014, 50, pp 25-26. This piece combined nostalgia, humour and a doctor’s insight. … two of my uncles had gammy legs, but after that, gammy leg syndrome (GLS) has become extremely rare and has seemed on the verge of following Neanderthal Man as he limped into extinction, threatening to take his gammy leg with him.
When Dr Coni had a fall, The result was an egg-sized swelling, and later, a swollen, discoloured, painful leg; in the Latin terminology … of the 1950s, the leg displayed turgor, rubor, dolor, and perhaps a smidgeon of calor; in the clinical terms of the same vintage, it had gone gammy on me. … The patient was a lady as advanced in years as she was retarded in intellect. … The combination which I had dispensed, had consisted of two parts of encouragement to one part solemnity, appropriate for the illness under discussion. … There were other situations … where it might well be necessary to use a far more potent mixture – possibly as strong as four parts solemnity to one of reassurance.
The four other finalists, in random order
Horatio Clare, for Of deserts and despots. Financial Times, Life & Arts Supplement, 23-24/8/2014, p 6. This is an account of a ‘recce tour’ of Turkmenistan, a bizarre authoritarian regime of gold statues, glaring sands and vast hydrocarbon reserves. The article covers travel, the people met, history, geography, economics and politics, in a sympathetic style.
Since independence, oil revenues, isolation and two presidential personality cults have created an hallucinatory skyline. A building like a giant owl’s head strobes purple and blue: this is City Hall, where couples come to register their weddings. The world’s largest eight-pointed star forms the base of an antenna that broadcasts patriotic concerts, ballets performed by combine harvesters and footage of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov making supreme decisions. … The first president of independent Turkmenistan who renamed the months of the year after his family, banned beards, smoking in public and lipsynching at concerts…
Allison Pearson, for Why no one wants to hire an English nanny. The Daily Telegraph, 13/3/2014, p 24. This heartfelt article, based on bitter personal experience, contained flashes of brilliant description. In private, Himself and I laughed at Hayley’s jobsworthiness (it was in grim contrast to our easygoing generosity – or cowardice, as I now see it). But we never dared challenge her. Hayley was the Bob Crow of nannies. In her view, washing up her employer’s coffee mug would have been a grievous breach of her job description, and quite possibly her human rights. … Filipina nannies … unlike Hayley, they are not burdened with that marvellous sense of entitlement that has made so many of our young people what they are today: obnoxious and unemployable. … the only thing many British girls form a meaningful attachment to is their mobile.
John Major, for Berlin Speech: the full text. The Daily Telegraph (on line, 13/11/2014). This flowed beautifully, with the cadences of speech coming over well in print. The structure is excellent, building up his arguments (for Britain to stay in the EU) in its course, and the speech is elegantly expressed. Twenty-five years ago this week, the Berlin Wall came down. German was reunited with German – and an arbitrary and brutal division of Europe was, at last, at an end. It was a great moment in European history – a triumph of freedom over repression. Of humanity over barbarism. It brought a great nation together, and paved the way for Europe to widen and grow. … I ask our European partners to realise that we are close to a breach which is in no-one’s interest. It is not a political ploy to gain advantages and concessions from our partners. … But our people deeply resent interference in the day to day activities that have been part of the British way of life for generations.
Helen Castor, for Joan of Arc: A History (Faber, 2014). This was judged from its Introduction. She has a really lively opening paragraph which makes one wish to read on. In the firmament of history, Joan of Arc is a massive star. Her light shines brighter than that of any other figure of her time and place. Her story is unique, and at the same time universal in its reach. She is, famously, a protean icon: a hero to nationalists, monarchists, liberals, socialists, the right, the left, Catholics, Protestants, traditionalists, feminists, Vichy and Resistance. … from the moment she stepped into public view, she was as much an object of fascination and a subject of impassioned argument during her short life as she has been ever since. … Alone in the fields at Domrémy, a peasant girl hears heavenly voices bringing a message of salvation for France, which lies broken at the hands of the invading English.
These six items show a wide range of origins, styles and purposes, by a teacher, a doctor, two journalists, a politician and a historian. Their very few errors in the English were outweighed by the merits of the pieces. We were pleased to see two book extracts reaching the finals. The judges pay more attention to the quality of the English than to the subject matter, as this is a prize for Excellent English. We tried hard not to be influenced by how much we agreed or disagreed with what was written, when the opinions expressed might be controversial.
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 2015, with a closing date of the end of May 2016 for submissions to be sent to Dr Lamb (address, see under London Branch, inside the front cover of Quest).
Judges: Bernard Lamb (chairman), Ray Ward and Adrian Williams
Dr Bernard Lamb, September 2015
Members may be surprised at the award of this prize to Robert Peal after Robin White's criticism of his book in Quest 120. The book was judged on an extract, the Introduction, which was free of the errors of English quoted by Robin. Most entries for the prize had one error or more, which had to be weighed against their merits.