There is something about these competitions and their predecessors (see Origins) that makes men and women alike reach for a nom-de-plume. In the thirties, there were more entrants with sobriquets than there are now, and probably the characters hiding behind the droll or Latin or simply initialised signatures (one of the winners was ‘S.’) saw it as part of the sporting anonymity of the entries. And of course the magazines they were reading were littered with letters and indeed articles where the writer did not divulge his or her identity. In the sixties, the craze for pseudonyms took a peculiar turn, with some individuals – notably Eric (E.O.) Parrott and Martin Fagg – using multiple identities. Eric was (among others) M.K. Cheeseman, Wayne Sidesaddle, Harrison Everard, B. Mooring, A. Boteman and Maud Gracechurch – the last three nods to the fact that he lived on a barge in London (called ‘Maud Gracechurch’). At least one competitor, Russell Lucas, had more than one bank account, and kept his pseudonyms quiet, so as not to affect the judges. I was given mine: Will Bellenger – it was an anagram thought up by Julian Barnes when, as the deputy literary editor of the NS, and therefore at that time (1978) a de facto judge, he wanted to give me two prizes. I was piqued and then pleased. At the time, I had also just discovered that The Spectator had a competition, but didn’t wish it to be known that I was flirting with the opposition – so I ran through twelve or thirteen more anagrams of my name, changing them annually, until I suddenly realised this wasn’t doing my reputation any potential good, so Nell L. Wregible and Belle R. Welling and the others were discarded. I also had a few wins by using aunts and uncles and cousins as ‘covers’ (this is still going on with one or two of the more obsessive competitors).
In the late 1970s, one of the most ardent competitors was Joyce Johnson, then in her eighties or nineties. She and her brother Leslie lived together in Tunbridge Wells for the last 15 years of his life (he died in 1969), and they competed with each other in particular. The pseudonyms she used were W. May Byron and A.J.Wyborn – the first being an anagram of the original of the second, her mother’s maiden name, Amy Wyborn. Joyce is also credited by Tony Augarde in The Oxford Book of Word Games with having created the best ever palindrome: it consists of a headmaster’s memos to himself, and is an incredible 467 letters long (it won a New Statesman competition in 1967). Realising that many of the many winning entries were by Martin Fagg, and that he sometimes won with more than one entry (he claimed to me that he had once scooped the pool in a Spectator competition), I wrote to her and asked what the rules were about multiple entries. I was 26 at the time (60 now). While doing some research at the outset of creating this web-site, I came across her reply. In it, she reveals Martin Fagg’s list of pseudonyms.
Just to round off this first foray into pseudonyms, the veteran poet and editor (and competitor) Gerard Benson, himself a.k.a. Jedediah Barrow and Eve Ryman, discovered something very odd about the Will Bellenger name that Julian Barnes gave me. In the the third Penguin Book Of Comic Verse, there is a poem that ends with the line ‘You’ve heard about the Bellengers and Will?’ Spooky.
And incidentally, I wonder if Steve Platt, who admits to this, is the only serving editor to enter and win a competition – pseudonymously (I don’t know what the pseudonym was!)