»  The Straggler, No. 34

August 8th, 2005

  Competitive Instincts


I am glad to see that The New Yorker has recently started up a reader competition on its last page. The competition is to suggest a caption for a cartoon. Results, however, have so far not been very impressive. A recent cartoon shows a boss type running out of his office with a surfboard under his arm, saying something to the receptionist as he passes her desk. Winning caption: "Tell my one-thirty things got way gnarly." Hmm. Still, perhaps things will improve when competitive-minded readers get into the spirit of the thing. Or perhaps major talents are not being stirred to action, the captioning of cartoons being pretty low down on the scale of difficulty for magazine competitions. Try writing a love poem — minimum sonnet length — using only words of four letters; or a recipe in the style of Paradise Lost; or a book blurb designed to be as off-putting as possible to potential readers.

That is the kind of challenge one faced, and in fact still faces, in the famous New Statesman weekly competition. I spent my late-teen years reading that fine British socialist periodical, then under the editorship of that fine British socialist Paul Johnson. The competition page — as with The New Yorker, it was the last page; there is what anthropologists call a "human universal" here somewhere — was always a good place to start reading. The New Statesman and Nation, to give the periodical its full title (rendered around Fleet Street as "the Staggers and Naggers") has been running a weekly competition for readers since 1934, and this feature has risen to become part of the common cultural stock of middlebrow Britons, some of the items being known to everyone. There is the challenge to offer misleading advice to foreigners, for example: "London barbers are delighted to shave patrons' armpits," etc.

I took that particular prizewinner from a published compilation of New Statesman competitions that I received as a Christmas present around 1978, which reappeared the other day when I was moving a pile of books from one inconvenient place in the attic to a different inconvenient place. Even with only a few dozen books involved, this is really an afternoon's work, as you soon discover a long-forgotten old friend and end up sitting there among the dust and bric-a-brac renewing the acquaintance. I actually turned up two of these New Statesman compilations, the 1978 one and a much older, smaller one printed on "austerity" paper in 1946, the circumstances of whose acquisition I have utterly forgotten. There went my afternoon.

The earlier volume has a period charm about it. Many of the competition entries dated from the war years, and there are some quite savage anti-German jibes here. Under "clerihews on musicians" we get:

Was a Hun, but not a Vandal.
The modern Goth
Is, unfortunately, both.

This was the great age of the clerihew, and they fill much of the book. Here's an affectionate dig at the Old Man:

Is in the hands of the Nazi
According to the Premier's information
And pronunciation.

Misleading advice to foreigners had not yet made an appearance, but there are many other ingenuities: obituary headlines for famous poets ("Wished Milton Alive: Danced With Daffodils"), last words (Henry James: "Eternity should enable me to extend my sentences"), first words (Wagner: "Fetch me a noisier rattle"), last words of animals (The Calf: "Why, it's the young master come home at last!"), and pastiches of Browning, Housman, and Jane Austen.

The later volume has of course a wider range, the competition setters (among those listed in the 1946 book, by the way, are Cyril Connolly and V. S. Pritchett) having expanded and developed their repertoire across the years. There is the "Three in One," where you have to put the titles of three well-known books together to tell a story: On the Beach; Jaws; A Farewell to Arms. Or you might be asked to provide names that disclose the profession of the bearer: Phil McCavity (dentist). There are apposite anagrams, of course: Desdemona — One dead Ms. One famous author might rewrite another's book: Orwell/Dick Francis — Animal Form. Or you might have to supply a breathless movie/play notice ending in a pun: "Edward II — Gay king gets his come-uppance. Will keep you glued to your seat!"

The 1946 clerihews have been joined by a menagerie of new verse forms in the 1978 volume: nonets, limericks, synthetic poems made from famous lines ("Let us go then, you and I / Under the wide and starry sky …"), poems whose every line has the name of a poet hidden in it, and so on. A favorite of mine is the poem with near-miss rhymes:

I dreamed I discoed at the Ritz —
The evening warm, the music cool —
And gorgeous girls who tossed their curls
Admired my sleek and well-hung clothes.

That last illustrates the greatest change from 1946 to 1978: the much wider scope given to salacity. Late-1970s New Statesman readers seem, in fact, to have had sex on the brain. Competitors are asked to provide coarse rugby-style songs for other games, or naughty versions of children's books: "'Off with her clothes!' roared the Queen. 'How very strange!' exclaimed Alice …" (Lewis Carroll would have smiled at that.)

The conservative London Spectator has a competition, too, but it has never quite attained the luster of the New Statesman's. Since we on the political Right are always boasting that we are the ones with the ideas nowadays, it seems to me there is an imbalance here. Why, asked General Booth, should the Devil have all the best tunes? Well, why should a left-wing rag have the best competitions? The New Yorker has thrown down the gauntlet. Come on, editors, let's get something going here!