New Statesman competitions

December 6, 2016

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.

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10 Responses to “New Statesman competitions”

  1. Nell Nelson Says:

    This is so SAD! Please organise the campaign. I will sign up.

    • Bill Greenwell Says:

      Nell – my view is that individual expressions of disappointment will be best, but it’s great to hear you lament the decision

  2. Frances Corkey Thompson Says:

    They can’t do this. Let’s complain like mad!

  3. Nell Nelson Says:

    (A joy to find your blog, and ongoing research, Bill. Sometimes I think I am missing everything that matters!)

  4. D A Prince Says:

    What struck me in your blog post (and the loss of the NS Comp wasn’t news to me) was how the writing of competition entries had shaped your approach to writing poetry. Me too. It’s where I began: the Olympian heights of ‘proper’ poetry seemed remote and inaccessible but a toe-hold on the foothills might, just, be within reach. I’ve been entering/winning since 1982 although I’d admired the winners from way back – ever since I left university, I think. Alison Prince (no relation) was a regular, I remember. Writing the assorted entries has taught me more about poetry and how it works than all my undergraduate years: it’s about how the line falls, the way a monosyllable can undercut a pompous thought, how Anglo-Saxon trumps Latin. After a few years what mattered more was competing against myself: the horror that I knew nothing of football/Dr Who/what Nicholas Lezard might have written as a teenager – and then, teeth gritted, finding a way into the competition. Making it new. Of course it was good to be in print, and with such supple and elegant winners, but it was also about learning what I could stretch to.

    The TES used to run a similar Competition (Martin Fagg and Laurence Fowler set alternately) and in 1987 they had a small party for winners, and a feature by Gerard Benson appeared in the TES (end of Feb, 1987). He wrote – and I have to quote from memory because I didn’t, to my shame, keep the article – “When I don’t write the comps I don’t write anything else.’ It’s true. At that party I met Bill, E O Parrott, Mary Holtby etc.

    But my story doesn’t matter. The history of the competition, as Bill is unearthing and continues to report on, is fascinating as literary and social history. 2016 has been a lousy year, and the ending of this comp has just been another shovelful thrown on it, but perhaps we should hope. It’s all we have left.

  5. Brian Allgar Says:

    George, while I understand Bill’s point about “individual expressions of disappointment” being preferable to a mass campaign, I don’t see why the one should preclude the other, and I should be more than happy to sign a petition, should anyone care to organize one.

    I can’t remember exactly when I first entered the NS Competition. I know, however, that my first entry to the Spectator Competition was in 1967, and the NS a few years later, which would put it in the late ’60s or early ’70s.(Only Bill could tell us the precise date, if his monumental history of the competition ever gets that far.)

    So to learn of its disappearance under the auspices of its current editor, Jason Cowley, comes as a deeply unpleasant surprise. Why, the fellow was only born one year before I won my first Spectator competition!

  6. David Silverman Says:

    Goodness, I had no idea that the NS competition meant so much to people out there. I’d certainly be in favour of a petition as well as individual expressions of disappointment (to put it mildly). The comp has been a big part of my life ever since I stumbled across it in about 1991. It’s been fun, inspiring, a chance, as Bill once said, to “channel my inner swot”, researching everything from Ancient Greece to the evolution of the banana and braconid wasps – not to mention a chance to delve into all that fabulous poetry. Also, importantly, it’s been a chance for us all to vent our collective spleen against all the injustices and horrors in the world, in such a creative way, and so contributing to the general commentary on world affairs. I don’t think the NS realises what it’s losing. I don’t know if it will make any difference, but I think we should register our displeasure. Count me in!

  7. Fred Fallon Says:

    I fail to understand this piece of vandalism. I feel certain that the Comp is as much loved by most readers as it is by me. For a journal that prides itself on its history, it seems doubly perverse. When I saw a letter on the Letters page complaining abut its closure, the thought that went through my mind was “So that’s the one token letter of objection they’ll print”. I hope I’m wrong. I’ve read much lately (a lot fo which I agree with) about the dumbing-sown of the Guardian, increasingly relying on ‘click-bait’ in preference to expensive ‘proper’ journalism. I do hope that the loss of the Comp isn’t a sign that the NS is following this rocky path to trendiness.


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