Winner 2020

Winner 2020

The Twenty-Third Queen's English Society Prize for Excellent English

The Winner

Laura Cumming for On Chapel Sands: My Mother and Other Missing Persons. Chapter 1. The Beach. Chatto and Windus, 2019.

This is an extraordinary evocation of a place and an era. The descriptions of the landscape are continually woven into the actions of the people who inhabit it. It is an excellent telling of an interesting story, with a good use of very short sentences and semicolons. It conveys a sense of calmness, combined with mystery and suspense, making one want to read the whole book.

This is how it began, and how it would end, on the long pale strand of a Lincolnshire beach in the last hour of sun, the daylight moon small as a kite in the sky. Far below, a child of three was playing by herself with a new tin spade. It was still strangely warm in that autumn of 1929, and she had taken off her plimsolls to feel the day's heat lingering in the sand beneath her feet. Short fair hair, no coat, blue eyes and dress to match: that was the description later given to the police.

... One minute she was there, barefoot and absorbed, spade in hand, seconds later she was taken off the sands at the village of Chapel St Leonards apparently without anybody noticing at all. Thus was my mother kidnapped.

I see the scene again and again, always trying to grasp the unfathomable moment in which she vanished and everything changed. The place where she was playing empties into air; the tide freezes; the beach turns black. Time stands still on the shore. How many minutes before her absence begins to register, before Veda becomes uneasy and then fearful, before the silence is broken by shouting and rushing to the spot where the spade lies fallen? The waves continue their impervious lapping, gulls drifting on the surface as the afternoon fades. How long before anybody missed my mother?

The Runner-up

Mark Vanhoenacker for Vaulting ambition. Financial Times, Life & Arts, 16-17/11/2019.

This story is from an unusual point of view -- an airline pilot's, taking us from a number 46 London bus to Beijing. It is graphic and well told, with vivid descriptions of flying, of scenery and of a new airport at Daxing.

Travellers may be surprised to learn how common it is for pilots to set off for an airport they've never been to. ... advance "visits" in a flight simulator make a pilot's inaugural journey to an airport simultaneously exciting and mundane. ...

After ordering the fuel on my iPad -- a one-click purchase like no other -- we made our way through security to the departure gate. ...

This small step to a slightly different realm of the heavens required the shortest possible climb: around 100ft, 30 metres, or only about half the plane's length. Dawn came as we crossed the Russian-Mongolian border. I looked down on a broad, snowy plateau unmarked by a single road and I was struck, as if for the first time, by how a journey that began with an ordinary, headphones-clad ride on London's number 46 bus and a hot chocolate at Paddington Station could lead to this moment in a crimson-streaked sky north-west of Ulaanbaatar. ...

It's certainly the case that the terminal [Daxing, near Beijing] -- its design team was led by Zaha Hadid until her death in 2016 -- is the most beautiful I have ever seen. The 45-metre-high central hall, best appreciated by departing passengers, is a temple to motion and commerce. Futuristic curving walkways sweep across its vast interior volume; long decorative arcs rise and fall like frozen waves against the clean horizontal edges of the hall's various floors; pinstriped pillars rise up into the roof like the fan vault of a cathedral, where they break into a simultaneously geometric and organic web of skylights.

Four other finalists, in random order

Bill Bryson for The Body: A Guide for Occupants. Chapter 1. How to build a human. Doubleday, 2019.

This contains many very interesting facts, clearly explained, sweeping the reader along with easily digested and sometimes startling statistics.

In the second or so since you started this sentence, your body has made a million red blood cells. ... Unpacked, you are positively enormous. Your lungs, smoothed out, would cover a tennis court, and the airways within them would stretch from London to Moscow. ...

The body is often likened to a machine, but it is so much more than that. It works twenty-four hours a day for decades without (for the most part) needing regular servicing or the installation of spare parts, runs on water and a few organic compounds, is soft and rather lovely, is accommodatingly mobile and pliant, reproduces itself with enthusiasm, makes jokes, feels affection, appreciates a red sunset and a cooling breeze. How many machines do you know that can do any of that? There is no question about it. You are truly a wonder. But then so, it must be said, is an earthworm. ...

Who would have thought that we would be incomplete without some molybdenum inside us, or vanadium, manganese, tin and copper? Our requirements for some of these, it must be said, are surpassingly modest and are measured in parts per million or even parts per billion.

Allison Pearson for Is there no part of British culture safe from the 'Woke' brigade? Daily Telegraph. 13/11/2019.

This was in lively, persuasive English, with a good use of rhetorical questions. It shows a great historical perspective, wittily expressed, but infused with anger at the stupidity of those who would wreck (and re-write) our culture for the sake of self-righteous political correctness.

The same willfully wrong-headed thinking dominates at the BBC. No period drama is safe any more from the drip-drip of politically correct views, regardless of how bizarre they appear in a historical context. ...

Her [Robina Chase] racist and sexist views were probably held by 98 per cent of the population in 1939, but the drama still had to punish her for not being feminist or socialist. The BBC blew a few million quid of the licence-payers' money pouring contempt on such stoic, patriotic people with lines like: "Make sure you do what's right, not what's British."

Do you suppose anyone at the Beeb noticed that over 800,000 British people lost their lives defeating fascism and doing "what's right", despite them being so tragically unwoke and all? Producers may be far too busy fighting the culture wars to care about details from the actual war, but it turns out viewers do mind. ...

What female in her right mind wants to be James Bond to score a feminist point? Today, though, there are those who won't rest until the ultimate rogue male is a house-husband with a spew-spattered baby muslin over one shoulder.

Daniel Hannan for The EU offers its members a terrible choice -- or democracy. The Sunday Telegraph, 13/1/2019.

His clear, heart-felt views are well expressed in lively English, with beautifully controlled sentences. It is a compelling piece of political argument which draws attention to the pernicious practices of those who govern us.

Until now, the neutrality of the Speaker has been a given in British politics. When an MP was picked to wear the horsehair wig, he was expected to leave behind not only his party but his name, becoming Mr Speaker, the holder of an office greater than any individual. Mr Bercow, who chose not to wear the wig, has now discarded the tradition of impartiality, too. That tradition rested on convention, decency and restraint, rather than on any written laws, and will not easily be recovered. From now on, any Speaker will be able to nudge any cause he happens to support. ...

There is something horribly un-British about it. We think of the harassment of dissidents as something which happens in Russia or Turkey. And, in general, we are right. Yet, when it comes to the European cause, a different spirit seems to animate the British state.

We may be about to see its most terrifying manifestation yet. Our MPs, whichever side they were on in the referendum, must be aware of the consequences of overturning the vote.

Catherine O'Flynn for The case of the child PI., 10-11/8/2019.

Her descriptive prose is a delight: lucid, written without complicated words or ideas as befits the description of a small child's daily life. It is low-key throughout, yet exciting and endearing.

I was eight when I started up my detective agency. My dad launched my career; from a very young age, I was used as cheap CCTV in the family's sweet shop.

I was the youngest of six siblings with a gap of 10 years between me and the next in line. By the time I was eight, my brother and sisters had all left home, leaving behind them a rich trail of clues about lives lived before mine. Every shelf and drawer in the house was crowded with scraps of letters, old diaries, loose photos, discarded shoes and broken dolls. I had a sense that I'd missed the party as far as the family was concerned but I loved uncovering traces of this lost golden age. I would pore over the evidence, trying to solve the mystery of how then became now. I was born to be a detective ....

... Invisibility was a requirement of the job. ...

Two things really help when stalking crimes as a child. One is having benignly negligent parents who don't really notice where you are or what you're doing. The other is having access to a wide selection of crime literature. I burned my way through the children's paperback section in my local library. The English villages of the Famous Five and Secret Seven were alien to me but the urban American landscape of the Three Investigators series, with their scrapyard HQ, were more relatable.

The judges aim to base their judgements on the quality of the English of each item submitted, without regard to whether they agree with the sentiments expressed. This is not an easy undertaking; sometimes, beautiful or exhilarating English is employed to express sentiments that may be disagreeable to our judges or our readers. Entries for items published in 2020 should be sent to Dr Lamb at the address inside the front cover of Quest by the end of May 2021. They should conform with the details in the second paragraph of this report.

Judges: Bernard Lamb (Chairman), Ray Ward and Adrian Williams