Competitions nos. 73A and 73B: results

A new judge (although she writes as if she’s done it many times, which makes me suspect her of having been a Saturday Review judge): Elizabeth Bibesco, who was Asquith’s daughter and a Princess by marriage to a Romanian prince. She sets – she had spent half a decade and more in Washington when her husband was Ambassador there – an American style of one-liner advert, giving as an example (for a laundry) ‘Don’t kill your wife; we do your dirty work.’ She wants this technique successively applied to an undertaker, a caravan-hiring establishment, a tea-garden, a beauty-parlour, a travel bureau and a man’s tailor.

But as she remarks, she hasn’t set a poem, but prose, and although ‘Everests of verse are continually climbed, a hillock of prose frequently defeats ascent, and nearly all the competitions that leave the track of literature evoke a sorry crop of truly deplorable entries’. She finds the entries to the A competition ‘facetious, elaborate and long-winded’, and aprt from a couple of pats on the back (‘Don’t worry – it’s our funeral’ – P.R. Laird), she offers no prizes.

On merrily then to the Himalayan prospects of poems, in this case, a national anthem for either a) a dictatorship or b) a socialist state, But, oh dear, ‘the entries hardly varied in demerit’. No sign of a Chesterton, a Belloc, a Tennyson, a Kipling, The Socialist anthems ‘read like a veiled attack on their own creed.’ And out of all the entries, with his dictator’s anthem, although he apparently came closest with the socialist anthem, too, is William Bliss. She has saved the WR three guineas, and disposed of only one: for this:


Competitions 72A and 72B: results

J.C.Squire, noting that the newspapers are forever telling us about surprising nesting places for birds (e.g. robins in pilar-boxes) asks for the best dozen places for nesting-birds crazed by publicity. He is not surprised by the many Wrens at St. Paul’s, nor Storks in sundry nooks of Marie Stopes’s home, but he hadn’t seen George Bernard Shaw’s beard coming. He liked gags like a stone-chat nesting in a pneumatic drill, but his difficulty was finding a good set. Many familiar runners up include Innes, Upward, Bliss and Hodgson Burnet. But the prize-winner (again) is D.B. (Sir M[aurice] Hankey was the Cabinet Secretary and Clerk to the Privy Council, positions he held until 1938, shortly after which, and almost without precedent, he spent some of the war years as a member of the Cabinet itself; I’m guessing that Tatts is Tattersall’s, the horse auction house in Newmarket).


The runner-up is Ciel, and I prefer her entry, myself:


The B competition is for a sonnet on Reno, Nevada. 1931 one was the year that Reno introduced more liberal laws on divorce and on gambling than anywhere else in the world. Nevada had secured its place as the gold-mining capital in the world (and is still third only to Australia and South Africa. A public competition for an apt city slogan had been won by the phrase ‘The Biggest Little City in the World’.


1931 film

Seacape is the winner, and that once again means that Pibwob is the runner-up. It is starting to be tempting to suggest they are one and the same.



Competitions nos. 71A and 71B: results

Charles Riddell firstly sets a three-stanza song on the subject of ‘sherry’, the drink havingmade something of a comeback, after a period of being eclipsed by the cocktail. Entrants are upbraided (as they still are) for sending in poems that cannot be sung. Riddell had hoped for something ‘rollicking’ and crying out for a music-hall tune, but no such luck. Guy Innes, Gertrude Pitt and Seacape are among the commended, T.E.Casson is noted as having gone to the trouble of producing an effort about Sherry being the nickname of the playwright Sheridan. Casson spent so long in getting to his first prize, one despairs of his reaching the second. Riddell gives the first prize to William Bliss (while excoriating his use of ‘post-prandial’ as ‘obnoxious’); the second goes to D.B.




1930s sherry advertisement

The B competition originates with an idea proposed by Osbert Sitwell that there be a society recommending the worst book to be published each month. Riddell wants an extract from a prospectus setting out such a society’s name, aims, advantages, and five nominees for the selection committee (and why they are qualified to fill these positions). This had the air to me of a competition that was going to fall over its feet. And so it proved. Almost everyone proposed either Sitwell himself or (more often) the Dean of St. Paul’s (or, a bit predictably, five WR staff members). The Dean of St. Paul’s was Dean Inge (rhymes with twinge), colloquially known as the gloomy dean, because of his repeated pessimism (he was anxious about the intelligence, or lack of it, of the masses, and was an advocate of eugenics. Born in 1860, he lived to be 94).

Dean Inge

Dean W.R.Inge

In the event, only one prize is awarded, and it goes to Jocelyn C. Lea – last seen as ‘Mrs. G.P. Lea’, winning the very first competition.


Competitions nos. 70A and 70B: results

Humbert Wolfe, whose own poetry is a peculiar mixture of the witty and the sapless, has asked first for a sonnet on sonnets, and, although he is more pleased with the B competition, he still thinks that there are several excellent entries. He can’t resist a bit of dry sarcasm (almost everyone sent in fourteen-liners), and he commends the witty as well as the more serious. He cuts the shortlist to three, and the last one to be thrown out is Hilary. What is perhaps a bit of a bother is that he wished to keep Hilary because lines like ‘The sandals barefoot poesy endures’ are allegedly almost too good to lose, whereas I would have been reaching for the bin at the double, as would, I think, judges like J.C.Squire. Never mind. The winners are Dermot Spence and D. C.R. Francombe. In Spence’s case, this is a first appearance. He was a linguist who had been to Oxford and Heidelberg universities in the late 1920s, and who was fluent in German (and other languages, probably including Hungarian, since he would seem to be the translator of a number of Hungarian poems). He was working in publishing and in an art gallery, and had edited one of Conrad’s novels. His biographical details are largely visible because his son, Jonathan D. Spence, is one of the world’s foremost authorities on Chinese history.

Here are the two sonnets:



What excites Wolfe is the response to a much more surreal competition, one that feels a great deal more contemporary in spirit. Competitors had to give six questions and editorial replies on the following subjects:

goldfish, automatic chess-players, gas-fitting as a career for girls, difficulties of growing orchids in the open air in Lapland, skiing as a qualification for beekeepers, and the advantages of reading modern poetry by candlelight

This elicited a large postbag. (In passing, automatic chess-players were still in their infancy, although two famous hoaxes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, involving chess masters hiding inside ‘machines’, had aroused interest, and there are references in some fiction, including a story by Ambrose Bierce. Not until the 1950s did automaton chess have any significance.) What Wolfe does is to select various entries to each question, and tot up who has the most entries overall:





The name of the last entrant quoted has been omitted by accident, not by me! The overall winners are Rosemary Higgins and Prudence. R. Graham’s name is a rarity: but he was one of the five original well-wishers, and the only one thus far to have won nothing (and has barely been mentioned, in fact) – although perhaps his ‘entry’ is misprinted. It’s worth noticing that the Sitwells are considered fair game (they are the subject of the next competitition). Vita Sackville-West had already had a skit on Edith Sitwell published in The Nation (under a pseudonym), and they were regarded as the leaders of a nonsensical and pretentious tendency.

Competitions 69A and 69B: results

Dyneley Hussey, noting that Lytton Strachey has just published Portraits in Miniature and other essays (which you can incidentally read here), has challenged competitors to add himself to the list of subjects, i.e. Strachey on Strachey. A new (female) name appears as the winner: Mopsa. Like many entrants, she neglects to include her address. Here is her winner, which Hussey reckons the best winner he’s ever picked:


There is a curious link to the previous competition but one: Virginia Woolf used Strachey as the model for a character in The Waves; and she used Vita Sackville-West as her model for Orlando.


Lytton Strachey

However for Hussey ‘not to know’ the address of ‘Mopsa’ is either a deliberate piece of false trail-laying, or, in Hussey’s admiration for the exactness of the piece, very astute. ‘Mopsa’ is Strachey’s companion Dora Carrington, the painter (generally known as ‘Carrington’), who lived with Strachey and felt guilty later that she had made fun of him – Strachey had, although he did not know it, only five months to live (he died in January 1932, and Carrington felt bereft without him: she committed suicide eight weeks after his death). One wonders if Hussey, when Strachey died, recalled having written that, since Strachey’s central figures invariably died at the end of the piece, he was surprised only one competitor adopted the same tactic – and perhaps regretted it. (Mopsa is the name of a country girl in The Winter’s Tale, but also the name of the heroine of Jean Ingelow’s 1869 children’s novel, which you can read here.) Mopsa was also one of the principal nicknames Carrington had used of Strachey for over a decade.


Dora Carrington and Lytton Strachey

The second prize goes to N.B.:


Competition 69B asks for epigrams on Jacob Epstein, the sculptor, who was touring a piece of his called ‘Genesis’  to raise money for the preservation of ancient buildings. Epstein, a modernist, and not popular with WR readers, but arguing for a cause that might well have appealed to them, is a neat subject for the ever-popular epigram (popular then, but not with me!). James Hall takes the top prize; a new name, Athos, is the runner-up:


Here is Epstein with the piece the competitors disliked:

Epstein and Genesis

Competitions nos. 68A and 68B: results

Just a week after one of her current lovers had narrowly failed to carry off a portion of a guinea, the judge is Vita Sackville-West, who is to become a regular. Only a few weeks earlier, Sackville-West had received the news – surprising to her – that the novel the Woolfs had published through their Hogarth Press in May, All Passion Spent, was selling well (‘Lord! What fun!’ remarked Virginia Woolf in her letter). She sets two modern competitions, or at least that’s how they feel.

68A is the first limerick competition: a limerick of thanks after a weekend visit (not a very promising topic). Oddly enough, Sackville-West’s very first published writing was a limerick, co-winning a competition in The Onlooker in July 1907 when she was fifteen (she won a pound and confided to her diary ‘This is the first money I have got through writing: I hope as I am to restore the fortunes of the family that it will not be the last’).  

Several competitors are instantly disqualified by sending in a sequence of limericks, or by ‘failing to adhere to the exigencies of the metre’. Several limericks referred to leaving things behind, and some to ‘Black Monday’ (confusing, this, as it was in 1929, although the stock market had been in a slide for two months in 1931). The fact is, though, that the limericks are not great, and Sackville-West admits to taking the easy option and going for one of two facetious spelling entries. The winners (both new names) are Talahina and Hilary. (Talahina is the name of the Indian wife of Col. Sam Houston of Revenging The Alamo fame.)


Is it me, or has Hilary just won half-a-guinea for a limerick that has nothing to do with the subject?

68B wants a scene (up to 300 words) from an imaginary novel typified by such lines as ‘He stared at her, fascinated,’ or ‘Her rare smile passed slowly across her features’. In the event, Sackville-West admits she was looking for a piece made up of hackneyed phrases from fiction, but that her entrants seemed to be well-versed in the work of Mrs. Amanda Ros. Amanda Ros, about whom there is a good blog here, is cited by many as the worst prose writer there has ever been. Here she is:

Amanda Ros

The winner (back in his stride, and no mistake) is Seacape; the runner-up is Welch.



Competions nos. 67A and 67B: results

Ernest Betts (remember that he’s a film critic) wants a Negro Spiritual, beginning “De Lawd is strikin’ down de worl'”. The problem with this competition is that he hasn’t explained that he wants, essentially, Paul Robeson numbers. Several entrants come near, one of whom is Olive Rinder, one of the many women involved in the complex web of relationships involving Vita Sackville-West (already a WR judge herself, and the setter of the very next competition, so it is impossible not to imagine that Sackville-West encouraged her to have a go): indeed in 1931, Vita Sackville-West was having an affair with a journalist, Evelyn Irons, whose lover was Olive Rinder, but subsequently – in early 1932 – had an affair with Rinder as well. So complex are the relationships of Sackville-West that Rinder tends to be overlooked. It may well be the same Olive Rinder who married Derek Beck in 1938. She is probably also the Olive Rinder born in the early 1890s in Norfolk but who shows up in 1911 as a gardening student.

But it is Seacape who escapes with the two guineas, closely followed by Hazel Fordham.



I can’t prove it, but I’d bet that Hazel Fordham is the 21-year-old daughter of the Hampstead barrister E.W. Fordham who has already featured twice in the winners’ enclosure; if so, she is entering a couple of months before her wedding to Thomas Samuel Barnes.

The B competition assumes that a ‘talkie’ company, and remember that Betts was still more than a little ill-disposed towards talkies, has decided to film ‘Tristram Shandy’ as ‘Widow Wadman’s Wild Party’. Betts wants some publicity. I had a feeling when I saw this competition that it would not attract any great results, and sure enough, the first prize is withheld. Betts congratulates the entrants on being insufficiently vulgar, and lets N.B. have a half-guinea consolation prize:


Competitions 66A and 66B: results

A new judge – the Scottish novelist, critic, poet but more famously historian – Agnes Mure Mackenzie sets a competition for the best villanelle, rondel or rondeau expressing the emotions of a managing director of ‘B-rb-rry’s’ on the approach of a bank holiday. The competitions are starting to harp on about the rain! The coy hyphens disguise the stylish waterproof clothing made by Burberry:


Mackenzie writes engagingly in praise of a number of entrants – William Bliss catches her attention (she likes his quietly clever pun); but she also admires Prudence, J.L.Pepper, Seacape, James Hall and Lester Ralph. But plumps for Pibwob for the main prize. No villanelles make it through.

WR Comp 66

The B competition asks for a four line (max) verse that argues for a national game that can only be played in fine weather. Thinking about this one, it seems quite hard to make anything of: and sure enough, the entries are deemed poor. The winners, Xenos and BM/ZJL3, are certainly sub-standard:

WR Comp 66You might think BM/ZJL3 is a weird and rare pseudonym (and you’d be right), but he, she or they had previously written to The Saturday Review to complain about prizes not being awarded.

The weather in 1931 was considered at the time to have been particularly awful. At the time this competition was set, this is how The Times recorded the weather:

weather 1931

There was a tornado in Birmingham in June, and, according to the magazine Nature, there was a notable tendency for the worst weather (in the south-east) to fall on weekends and public holidays. You can see the summary, written from the perspective of the following year, here. You may, however, be impressed by the heat in Tunbridge Wells and Croydon.

Tunbridge Wells

Competitions 65A and 65B: results

Naomi Royde-Smith (her own rules as ever, with three guineas for A, and two guineas for B) first sets ‘A Song in June’ (max 21 lines, and a host of competitors stroll into the trap of rhyming ‘June’ and ‘bloom’, ‘birds’ and ‘words’; and also the trap of whingeing about rain. W. Hodgson Burnet is commended as having been amusing, but ruled out because of the plethora of serious poems (that doesn’t sound a very good reason). One by one the top twenty entrants are winnowed. Seacape: Swinburnian echo, does not fulfil promise; Anthony Cowdray: great start to sonnet, but stops at line 12 and forgets to mention June. Hilda Newman (a winner on the previous occasion Royde-Smith was in charge, and perhaps the Hilda Newman here), Yeonhala, Cherryblossom, Miss M.M. Scott and Margaret Monroe are commended for various forms of prettiness and delicacy. Now we get to the final three, ‘as remarkable as any that have ever been sent in for an open competition’, which can’t quite be true, as the first (‘Loo’) is admonished for a dreadful line, before two victors share the spoils: Valimus (one guinea) and Marion Peacock (two guineas):

WR Comp 65ii

WR Comp 65iia

Marion Peacock is good at this kind of poem – not stolidly Georgian, but quite fluent, even Imagist.

The B competition was for ‘an essay on hairpins’. Yes, an essay on hairpins. The winner is ‘F.J.B.‘ but Naomi Royde-Smith, perhaps unthinkingly, reveals her to be Freda Jane Bromhead – who was born the second daughter of a London art-dealer in 1903, and who lived, unmarried, in London for most of her life, dying in Bristol in 1993. There is a selection of her unpublished novels in a King’s College London archive, and there are traces here and there that she had poems published: but she did have one novel published in 1962, called The Flower On The Path.

WR Comp 65ii

Gladys Cooper

Some hairgrips in use