Saturday, 16 November 2013

I was a co-winner of the Inglis Scholarship 44 years ago – I haven't won many prizes, so why would I forget all about this one?

A friend mentioned to me a few months ago that I had once won an academic prize at school. I assured him I hadn’t: I don’t win prizes - never have. Recently, he sent me the above photograph from an old school magazine. I was touched, partly because, despite being an extremely busy man, he had gone to the trouble of tracking it down, and partly because, wheh it comes to winning awards and prizes, my record is incredibly skimpy.

I won the high jump at school when I was six. The bar must have been set about nine inches above the ground, I was roughly a foot taller than my little English classmates, and I panicked just before take-off and did a sort of reverse Fosbury Flop, diving head-first over the bar into the sand-pit. I then won the History and Latin prizes for my class when I was eleven – but only because I’d been demoted from the top tier in both subjects the previous year for being useless. Then, at 13, I won the Junior School Acting Cup for playing the father of (I think) the bride in painfully unfunny 19th Century French farce, An Italian Straw Hat. I won because the boy playing the bridegroom – the lead character – fell ill just before the first performance, and the understudy had to read his part from a copy of the play concealed in his top hat. All I remember about it was having one line – “Have you seen my myrtle?” – which, for some reason, I decided to deliver in a leeringly suggestive Carry On style. This had the adult audience rolling about.

There followed a slight hiatus of some 40 years, until the BBC’s Interactive TV department, which I was managing at the time, won several industry awards, including two BAFTAs – but these belonged to the teams which created the services. I chose not to attend the ceremonies, as I didn’t feel they had much – in anything - to do with me.

And that’s pretty much it. So discovering that I was one of the winners of an externally-marked prize for writing a critique of an unidentified poem (I’m told it was by one of the Metaphysical poets and that the boy who should have won it identified it as a Pastoral poem, the fool) has come as a bit of a surprise. (The reason the subject came up at all was that I was wondering aloud where I’d found the money to buy my first motorbike, a Bantam 125, at a time when family money was tight as a result of my father’s death the previous year.)

Which leaves the mystery of why I would utterly forget such a peak of achievement set in  a relatively flat landscape. My wife thinks it was because I blithely assumed at 16 that life would be an endless succession of awards and prizes - but I was as insecure as the next teenager. It could have been because my grandmother, an enormously  comforting, stabilising presence, had also died the previous year, so life suddenly seemed threateningly precarious: I probably assumed that any good luck would rapidly be balanced by some bad karma. But kids are resilient, and I suspect I was more worried about how a big bespectacled lump of an adolescent with a face like a football was ever going to find a girl-friend.

My amnesia could also have been to do with the fact that my mother’s motto was “I Never Win”, which she trotted out at regular intervals – and with some justification around that time. I internalised this Prebyterian outlook so successfully that every piece of good news or recognition – no matter how large or small - has always come as a bit of a shock: in fact, for most of my life, I’ve been astonished – and a bit worried - when things have gone right. I still adhere broadly to the karmic principle. I invariably cringe in panic on behalf of people who tell me just how stunningly, brilliantly well their lives are going - I either worry that they're tempting fate or assume that they're lying through their teeth (fortunately, living in England, this doesn't happen often.) But during the last two decades I've come to realise that (a) good news is more likely to be followed by more good news than by bad, and (b) overall, the good news overwhelmingly outbalances the bad. (Yes, I know how goofily platitudinous that sounds - I'm in a becalmed, platitudinous mood).

Anyway, my thanks to an old friend for confirming what I've increasingly come to realise over the year - that I do sometimes (in fact, quite often) win.


  1. Fascinating. What I noticed about it, as well as your stunning achievement, was how many of the names on the list I have absolutely no recollection of. And you should have gone to the BAFTA ceremony. Without getting into management speak bollocks about enablers and facilitators, the achievement is just as much down to the team leader as the team.

    1. That's v. kind of you, ex-KCS. I would have gone to the cermony the following year, when we had an even better serice up for a BAFTA, because I felt slightly more responsible for its success - but the judging panel included some embittered former department members who stuck the knife in and awarded it to some piece of lame nonsense on Danish TV. Still rankles, as you can probably tell.

      I see Jedburgh got the Monson prize - what the hell was going on that year!