On the Tedious Dentistry of Gift Horses

Upon the Wednesday of this week, I found myself in jolly old London. Not to fill my nostrils with the usual blackish material – though this I did, in spades – but to attend the annual award ceremony of the David St John Thomas Charitable Trust.

OK. Now listen. I can either write an honest account or a bit of boring old fluff. The latter would bleed with oblique comments leaving the half-awake reader in no doubt what I thought of the thing. So, rather than pussyfoot around, I’m going to pretend that I have journalistic integrity – hah! If you, gentle reader, happened to attend the same ceremony and had a different experience, feel free to let me know in the comments.

So: The stage was set for an afternoon of the most singular kind. The awards took place in an old, faintly colonial building called The English Speaking Union on Charles Street, Mayfair. Its charming receptionist set the tone: when I asked her if there was a secure place where I could store my rucksack (which contained my laptop), she suggested my back – without any trace of irony. Masterful control. I applaud her.

About a year ago, the writers in my old writers’ group decided to put together an anthology. We did so. It is now published and has popped up on Amazon (US). One of the members submitted it for a competition run by the David St John Thomas Charitable Trust.

The whole thing could only be described as British. I don’t want to be too nose-up about the whole thing because we did, after all, win first prize. (That is, joint first prize with three other anthologies; a fourth got the ‘overall’ prize; we were, then, the joint winner of the losing group; a crypto-first.) But, my word, it was a very, very odd affair.

To begin. St John is pronounced ‘Sinjin’. Hmm, nice. Just like Stringfellow Hawk’s brother in Airwolf. I relaxed immediately.

Let me say that St John Thomas is a man who has contributed a great deal to charity and is well liked as an old-school gentleman of publishing. Presumably, then, he was having a bad day. Before introducing the prizes, there was much talk about the total – 12,000 pounds in all, I think. Each time it was mentioned, a little pause was offered for us to take in the sum. There was so great a focus on numbers, in fact, that it began to sound like St John Thomas was rather more keen to tell us how lucky we were to get the money than he was willing to give any of it away. The monetary theme continued throughout the afternoon like a post-modern continuity gag. Many winners were embarrassed by Crowther-esque comments like “Don’t forget your cheque for five hundred pounds!” They came and went rapidly because St John Thomas had made it clear at the beginning of the ceremony that we should not applaud spontaneously, or even over-generously, because there was a great rush.

Somewhat at odds with this was St John Thomas’s tendency to take the judges to one side and engage them in lengthy interviews on staggeringly simplistic observations about the writing process…all the while staring into the crowd with an air of edification, leaning on the wall like a country squire on his mantelpiece. He then cut the coffee break short despite the presence of people still queueing or getting to know one another; and in the particularly uncharming way of a head master rounding up lackadaisical pupils. My friend David wouldn’t be budged, however, and got his coffee. Good for him. He also fell asleep later and started snoring. Good, I maintain, for him.

Grouchy already, I was further annoyed when the anthology winners were invited to accept their prize (in total, so that the applause could be limited). There were sixteen of us, and no room to stand in the corner. I stood on one side to avoid blocking out the camera’s view of the shorter ladies behind me. For this, I got a sharp, “Oh do move in! Don’t hide!”

I replied, coldly, that I wasn’t going to block out the ladies from the one official photograph of the Writers’ News.

Awkwardness followed, which is always nice.

As I say, David St John Thomas is undoubtedly a capital fellow, has contributed a lot to charity, and our prize of one hundred pounds will go a long way to covering the cost of the ISBN for the anthology. But – Christ – what an odd, odd afternoon, and as much fun as a seaside town in winter. I couldn’t get away fast enough.

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Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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