It’s a sad week for those who enjoy light verse and parody. The New Statesman has announced that it will no longer be setting Weekend Competitions. For over eighty years these comps have set a high standard for versifiers, wits and parodists, but now, apparently, there is not enough space in the magazine for a feature like this.
I doubt if I would be writing poetry today if it wasn’t for the New Statesman. As a young man I wrote rather intense verse; I knew what it meant, but most other readers would have found it puzzling. Certainly none of the editors I sent it to were interested. For a while I gave up writing poems.
I had always enjoyed the New Statesman competitions, though, and entered one that asked for one-liner jokes. One of mine was printed and I won a pound for it. I carried on, first with prose parodies, and then with verse – which needed to be clear, funny and properly scanned. The first verse winner I had was this, from 1982; the setter asked for lyrical praise of some feature of the modern countryside:
How each country hedgerow treasures
Keepsakes of man’s harmless pleasures!
From the ditch’s nettled deeps,
See, a Smartie packet peeps,
Cast, perhaps, among the wild,
By some dreaming, dawdling child
Who stopped to read this dampened Sun
And marvel at strange adult fun.
But oh how gleam those cans, beer’s silver shucks,
That laughing airmen gaily fling from trucks!
Some blade from the Young Farmers’ Club,
Careering zigzag from the pub,
Stopped here to puke, neath jewelled skies,
This beanfeast for the busy flies.
And what’s the whiteness, underneath
And like the foxglove? Why, a sheath!
Flat and exhausted now, and pale,
But still with strength to bear a tale
Of how a daring girl and caring boy
Here shared immense, sweet, blissful, prudent joy.
I was regular competitor in both the New Statesman and the Spectator throughout the eighties, but then began to divert my writing talents in other directions (including songwriting and Snakeskin). In 2007, though, I bought a copy of the Spectator to read on the train, and liked the look of the comp (it was bouts rimés). I wrote, entered, won, and was hooked on the comping habit again.
I’ve only entered the New Statesman competitions a few times in recent years, mostly because recently they have mostly wanted jokes on political subjects – less interesting to me than the less predictable range of tasks suggested by Lucy Vickery who sets the Spectator comps.
Still, I’m very sad to see them go. They have a noble history, much of which is recorded on Bill Greenwell’s blog, which follows the history of the competitions: https://nscompsandpoets.wordpress.com/
Maybe we should campaign to make the editor change his mind. I’ve come across plenty of NS readers who say that the comp is the best thing in the magazine.