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.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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