I’ve just been alerted by Bill Greenwell to his new blog, about the history of the New Statesman competitions (of which he has been the monarch for several decades). It’s very much a work in progress, and so far he hasn’t got much beyond some general thoughts and accounts of the earliest comps. It’ll be worth keeping an eye on, though, because it’s going to be good.
The series of competitions began in the Weekend Review (later incorporated into the New Statesman) and it has attracted some striking parodic talents over the years. I’ve written before on this blog about Allan M.Laing, imprisoned as a conscientious objector during the Great War, and later the most successful NS competitor during the thirties and forties. Bill Greenwell’s blog hasn’t got up to Laing yet, but promises accounts of major competitors, including their pseudonyms.
Before the Weekend Review, there were competitions in the Saturday Review (Bill G. gives a good account of how the Weekend Review was founded by journalists walking out of the Saturday Review in protest against the proprietor’s support for the United Empire Party.) Writing contests had also been a longstanding feature of the Westminster Gazette, where Naomi Royde-Smith set tricky literary challenges every week.
Some of the winners are collected in The Westminster Problems Book, now available in facsimile. This was published in 1908 and is divided into two sections – prose and verse. Much of the prose seems rather dated now, though some inclusions have their moments. Among the versifiers are some famous names – Walter de la Mare, for example (who was in love with Naomi Royde-Smith) There is also A.A.Milne, and – perhaps more surprisingly – Lord Curzon, who provides two translations from the French.
I was particulary interested, though, by the several pieces by Rupert Brooke. Some of these made it into his collected poems, but others did not, like this rewriting of ‘Mary had a Little Lamb’ in the manner of Ben Jonson:
Shepherdess of one fair sheep,
Who, beside thee still abiding
Heeds not ways both long and steep,
Scholars’ laughter, teacher’s chiding;
Say, what magic spell doth keep
By thy side thy one fair sheep?
Leave unbarred stall and fold,
Love requireth no constraining.
Bring nor crook nor sheep-dog bold,
Love, all servile aids disdaining,
At thy side will ever keep,
Shepherdess, thy one fair sheep.
I think that’s rather good.
Included in the Collected Poems is this one, originally a Westminster Gazette entry:
The Little Dog’s Day
All in the town were still asleep,
When the sun came up with a shout and a leap.
In the lonely streets unseen by man,
A little dog danced. And the day began.
All his life he’d been good, as far as he could,
And the poor little beast had done all that he should.
But this morning he swore, by Odin and Thor
And the Canine Valhalla–he’d stand it no more!
So his prayer he got granted–to do just what he wanted,
Prevented by none, for the space of one day.
“Jam incipiebo, sedere facebo,”
In dog-Latin he quoth, “Euge! sophos! hurray!”
He fought with the he-dogs, and winked at the she-dogs,
A thing that had never been heard of before.
“For the stigma of gluttony, I care not a button!” he
Cried, and ate all he could swallow–and more.
He took sinewy lumps from the shins of old frumps,
And mangled the errand-boys–when he could get ‘em.
He shammed furious rabies, and bit all the babies,
And followed the cats up the trees, and then ate’ em!
They thought ’twas the devil was holding a revel,
And sent for the parson to drive him away;
For the town never knew such a hullabaloo
As that little dog raised–till the end of that day.
When the blood-red sun had gone burning down,
And the lights were lit in the little town,
Outside, in the gloom of the twilight grey,
The little dog died when he’d had his day.
[Footnote 1: Now we're off] [Footnote 2: I'll make them sit up.]