V.S.Pritchett continues the Christmas theme by asking for a poem in the style of Thomas Hardy (who had only died, aged 88, five years earlier) spoken by an assistant in a store obliged to dress up as Father Christmas, and with a report of a disquieting thing that has happened to him. The idea of dressing up as Santa goes back to 1500, but had fallen into abeyance until Victorian times. The first appearance of Santa Claus in a store seems to be in the 1870s in the USA, and in the 1890s in the UK.
Imitating Hardy, notes Pritchett, is popular and attracts two kinds of entry – ballads, and word-tortured poems a la ‘Winter Words’ (Hardy’s posthumous collection, published in 1928, of which this is an example, although not too word-tortured).
The Son’s Portrait
I walked the streets of a market town,
And came to a lumber-shop,
Which I had known ere I met the frown
Of fate and fortune,
And habit led me to stop.
In burrowing mid this chattel and that,
High, low, or edgewise thrown,
I lit upon something lying flat─
A fly-flecked portrait,
Framed. ‘Twas my dead son’s own.
“That photo? … A lady ─ I know not whence─
Sold it me, Ma’am, one day,
With more. You can have it for eighteenpence:
The picture’s nothing;
It’s but for the frame you pay.”
He had given it her in their heyday shine,
When she wedded him, long her wooer:
And then he was sent to the front-trench-line,
And fell there fighting;
And she took a new bridegroom to her.
I bought the gift she had held so light,
And buried it ─ as ’twere he.─
Well, well! Such things are trifling, quite,
But when one’s lonely
How cruel they can be !
The B competition takes a popular saying that seems to have died out by the end of World War II – ‘I do not care if it snows ink’ (usually ‘I don’t …’). It can be found in a Nevil Shute novel in 1940, for instance. But what if it did snow ink? Pritchett asks for an Express front page article.
The first prize belongs to ‘Ballet‘ (who is referred to as a she). The second is R.C.A., and, we are told, lived in Shortlands (near Bromley). The second might be traceable. Both entries are great – this is one of the best competitions for a while.
(Sir James [Hopwood] Jeans, by the way, was an eminent quantum physicist, who had been in the news because he had been invited to give the prestigious Royal Institution Christmas Lecture in December 1933. His subject was ‘Through Space and Time’.)