Triumph of a mucky poem

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The Independent Culture
Autobiography is a notoriously tricky genre. It can be difficult for the novice writer to achieve the necessary distance from his or her own life. The judges of the second Ways With Words autobiography competition - Kay Dunbar of Ways With Words, Jan Dalley, Literary Editor of the IoS, and Suzi Feay, Deputy Literary Editor, were looking for that rare ability to make a stranger share, and care about, someone else's experiences. There were over 300 entries, many of them more like travel journalism than autobiography; perhaps this reflected the hope that the more exotic the experience, the more likely the piece was to catch our eye.

In the end, we chose "Hidden Treasure", Alan Byford's witty account of a furtive childhood discovery. Furrowed brows cleared, flurries of photocopies were whittled down, and a consensus emerged: "It's got to be the one about the mucky poem, hasn't it?" Penguin Books sponsored the prize and donated pounds 200 in book tokens to the winner.

Author Joan Brady, herself adept at alchemising personal experience into narrative gold, awarded the prizes to the six winners in the Great Hall at Dartington. She highlighted the key qualities of "Hidden Treasure". It is well crafted, from its intriguing first sentence, which pulls the reader in, to the neat punchline. Within the 1,000-word limit he packs in evocative descriptions of smells, sights and textures; with great economy and effectiveness he dramatises a rite-of-passage moment when a young boy suddenly sees his father in a new, adult light.

In complete contrast was our second prize-winner, Annabel Tremlett. A meditation on her life, taking her contact lenses as a metaphor, her piece was poetic without being gushing: "As I let them lie in the palm of my hand like Monet's water lilies, I can measure out my life through the stories bound up in their graceful curves."

After these two pieces, judging grew tough; in hopeless indecision we ended up awarding two third prizes and two fourth prizes. Christine Baines's "Mother Armenia" was beautifully written, a "day in the life" account of aid work in Yerevan. Liz Diamond's "Across the English Channel" was a tribute to her Belgian grandmother, and the exciting, strange foodstuffs associated with her: "grey, coarse, open-textured bread uncut from the baker's ... mince, a marbled dark beef that needed hours of braising ... mussels ... awash with the thin green herb-scented stock of celery or spinach". Pip O'Callaghan economically packed in an entire life-story, practically from birth. And Andrew Dean in "Short Trousers" described an idyllic boyhood with overtones of Just William.

We were lucky enough to hear all the winners read from their work. Alan Byford's piece (right) turned out to be an extract from his ongoing memoirs. He published one novel, Loudly Sing Cuckoo, in the 1970s, and now runs the Hawthorn Press, in Wells next the Sea. The event he describes here took place when he was about eight.

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