A CHOICE OF THE WRITE STUFF

WINNERS OF THE 1996 INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY/PANASONIC WRITING COMPETITION
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We always knew that Independent on Sunday readers were literate and intelligent. We always suspected that there must be aspiring and talented writers among you. If we had realised quite how many, we probably wouldn't have organised a writing competition.

But we did, and, after three months, the mountains of entries that have been overshadowing our office have finally been levelled. Boxload after boxload has been read, enjoyed and pondered over; not-so-short lists of promising entries have been whittled down into lists that still weren't short enough, and then whittled down again.

It was, in a sense, the worst sort of competition to judge: no absolutely outstanding entries in any category, but a consistently high standard, and a range of voices and viewpoints so wide as to make comparisons almost impossible. Some showed spark and promise but lacked professionalism and polish; with others, the opposite was true. Some judges were mainly interested in style; others felt that structure, or content, was more important. The slow slog towards consensus produced compromise: the winners tended to be those with a bit of everything.

Each category was fiercely contested, and any one of the five category winners would have made a worthy overall winner. In the end, we opted for Dylan Winter's "Clockwise Fish", printed here in its entirety, which was quirky, original and well-written - and seemed to grow on people with each new reading. He wins a Panasonic CF-41GT42 multimedia notebook PC with carry-case and full-size CD-Rom Drive, worth pounds 3,500. Each of the four other category winners, extracts from whose entries are printed here, wins a runner-up's prize of a Panasonic UF-V40 digital fax machine, worth pounds 400.

Congratulations to all the winners; thanks to Panasonic, for their generous sponsorship; and thanks to everyone who entered, for your time, effort, interest and infinite variety of thought.

The overall winner of the competition, Dylan Winter, was selected from the winners of the five categories: Book Reviewer, Feature Writer, Arts Critic, Food Writer and Columnist. His winning entry, submitted in the Columnist category, is printed in its entirety (right); extracts from the winners in the other four categories are printed below.

In each case, winners were selected by the single transferable votes of the five judges. The judges were: Richard Askwith, editor, "Sunday Review"; Isabel O'Keeffe, deputy editor, "Sunday Review"; Jan Dalley, literary editor, Independent on Sunday; Laurence Earle, arts editor, Independent on Sunday; Blake Morrison; and Michele Roberts.

BOOK REVIEWER

Some have found these memoirs of Vidal's first 40 years tinged with sadness: the parents' divorce, the alcoholic Mommy-Dearest, the lost love and loveless promiscuity; indeed Vidal himself thoughtfully pre- detonates the more obvious clues to his somewhat chilly character through the book with his usual wit and malice, seasoned with the assumption that only the sentimental middle classes would find his somewhat cheerless personal life at all depressing when held next to his international successes as novelist, essayist, screenwriter and now in later years even actor.

Yet the most striking and ultimately the most melancholy aspect of this admittedly entertaining book is the discovery that such an accomplished individual, now entering his eighth decade, must spend so much of his memoirs lovingly burnishing his in-crowd antecedents like so much inherited silver. Grandfather a senator, father a bureaucrat, mother (briefly) married to landed gentry: crucial to Vidal's literary voice is his image of himself as a child of America's "ruling class" - if so sprawling a collection of wheeler-dealers, elected politicians, well-paid salarymen and descendants of Mrs Astor's Victorian era social Four Hundred could be said to inhabit a single group - who voluntarily Left All That for the writer's life in Rome.

"Truman Capote has tried, with some success, to get into a world that I have tried, with some success, to get out of," Vidal quotes himself, before quickly reminding the reader that real insiders were aware that social-climber Capote was always foolishly scaling the wrong peak.

FEATURE WRITER

You knew someone like Eddie Irvine at school. He copied your homework and got better marks than you, won everything on sports day, beat you up and ran off with your girlfriend, then dumped her a week later. Chiselled face, fierce blue eyes, talks like he drives: instinctively, sometimes carelessly, always quickly. You ask about his fellow drivers, and he says "Boring bunch of bastards, really," fiddles with his watch and gazes blankly back like he couldn't be less interested in what you've got to say next if he tried.

Since the retirements of Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell and the death of the incomparable Senna have left Formula One's travelling circus with a cast of understudies, Irvine has appeared a throwback to more glorious times, when inspirational but fallible heroes reigned over unsmiling androids. Irvine evokes memories of the mercurial Nelson Piquet, who swashbuckled his way to three World Championships in the Eighties, loftily dismissing his rivals as "a Sao Paulo taxi driver" (Senna) or "an uneducated blockhead with an ugly wife" (Mansell).

It is tempting to compare Irvine to George Best, another Ulster- man with a dimpled chin whose uncanny talent spent a career at odds with an ungovernable temperament. Irvine seems, like all the greats, to be someone struggling to keep his ability under control. He dares to have faults. Predictability isn't one of them. Things just keep happening to him.

ARTS CRITIC

Whoever said that you can't imagine Delia Smith breaking wind in her own kitchen missed the point. You can't imagine her cooking either. Of course, all the visual evidence works hard to convince us otherwise. We see freckled hands teasing a handful of cranberries into a bowl or chivvying a pan of reluctant butter. But mostly the images of actual cooking have the soft focus glow of Sainsbury's commercials or pornography. Ingredients plummet into glass bowls against a dramatic black backdrop. Delia's voice describes what's going on. But surely no one believes that she's doing the cooking.

"This is how cooking ought to be" seems to be the subtext. There's never any quick swig of wine, no furtive nibbling at the foccacia. There isn't a sense of people - of an udience for our labours. Instead we're in a kitchen of steel that is flawlessly stainless, of copper pans and "pretty plates" ("pretty" is one of Delia's favourite words).

Students of semiology will already have deconstructed the pristine textual surface of her commentaries. But for genre novices, here's an introductory lesson: "I get a lot of letters" (I'm important) "from people with cakes that have failed" (you, the viewers, fail) "and almost every time it's the tin" (I'm the expert). The scolding tone of a fifth form home econ- omics teacher seeps through.

FOOD WRITER

Along the high street of Golders Green, the cars are so badly parked they seem to have been abandoned. It has given rise to the irregular verb "I park, you double park, he blocks the road completely". This is the heart of north-west London's Jewish community, where the youngsters hang out and smoke Silk Cut ultra lights and the Israelis promenade with portable phones. More than 90 per cent of the community will visit this unremarkable high street at least once during the year. Halfway along the parade of shops is a restaurant called Bloom's.

Each waiter serves you in his own unique manner but there is something in common in their style - like painters from the same school. Indeed it would be fair to describe them as impressionist waiters.

COLUMNIST

First prize in this difficult category was won by Barbara Matthews, for her thoughtful review of Gore Vidal's autobiography, Palimpsest. Barbara Matthews, 40, is originally from Connecticut, USA, but now lives in Wombleton, North York-shire, where she works as a lawyer.

FEATURE WRITER

The winner in this category was Andrew Meuller, who submitted an unexpected but irresistible profile of the racing driver Eddie Irvine. A 27-year-old freelance journalist, Andrew Mueller is originally from Sydney, Australia, but has been liv- ing in London for the past six years.

You knew someone like Eddie Irvine at school. He copied your homework and got better marks than you, won everything on sports day, beat you up and ran off with your girlfriend, then dumped her a week later. Chiselled face, fierce blue eyes, talks like he drives: instinctively, sometimes carelessly, always quickly. You ask about his fellow drivers, and he says "Boring bunch of bastards, really," fiddles with his watch and gazes blankly back like he couldn't be less interested in what you've got to say next if he tried.

Since the retirements of Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell and the death of the incomparable Senna have left Formula One's travelling circus with a cast of understudies, Irvine has appeared a throwback to more glorious times, when inspirational but fallible heroes reigned over unsmiling androids. Irvine evokes memories of the mercurial Nelson Piquet, who swashbuckled his way to three World Championships in the Eighties, loftily dismissing his rivals as "a Sao Paulo taxi driver" (Senna) or "an uneducated blockhead with an ugly wife" (Mansell).

It is tempting to compare Irvine to George Best, another Ulster- man with a dimpled chin whose uncanny talent spent a career at odds with an ungovernable temperament. Irvine seems, like all the greats, to be someone struggling to keep his ability under control. He dares to have faults. Predictability isn't one of them. Things just keep happening to him.

ARTS CRITIC

Whoever said that you can't imagine Delia Smith breaking wind in her own kitchen missed the point. You can't imagine her cooking either. Of course, all the visual evidence works hard to convince us otherwise. We see freckled hands teasing a handful of cranberries into a bowl or chivvying a pan of reluctant butter. But mostly the images of actual cooking have the soft focus glow of Sainsbury's

Geoff Barton's winning entry was a review of Delia Smith's TV programme Winter Collection. Although its subject gives it overtones of food writing, the judges admired it as a lively piece of criticism. An English teacher from York, Geoff Barton, who is 33, has also written textbooks.

commercials or pornography. Ingredients plummet into glass bowls against a dramatic black backdrop. Delia's voice describes what's going on. But surely no one quite believes that she's doing the cooking.

"This is how cooking ought to be" seems to be the subtext. But, like Heaven, it seems coldly unreal. There's never any quick swig of wine, no furtive nibbling at the foccacia. There isn't a sense of people - of an audience for our labours. Instead we are in a kitchen of steel that is flawlessly stainless, of copper pans and "pretty plates" ("pretty" is one of Delia's favourite words).

Students of semiology will already have deconstructed the pristine textual surface of her comment- aries. But for genre novices, here's an introductory lesson: "I get a lot of letters" (I'm important) "from people with cakes that have failed" (you, the viewers, fail) "and almost every time it's the tin" (I'm the expert). The slightly scolding tone of a fifth form home economics teacher seeps through.

FOOD WRITER

Along the high street of Golders Green, the cars are so badly parked they seem to have been abandoned. It has given rise to the irregular verb "I park, you double park, he blocks the road completely".

This is the heart of north-west London's Jewish community, where the youngsters hang out and smoke Silk Cut ultra lights and the Israelis promenade with portable phones. More than 90 per cent of the community will visit this unremarkable high street at least once a year. Halfway along is a restaurant called Bloom's.

Each waiter serves you in his own unique manner but there is something in common in their style - like painters from the same school. Indeed it would be fair to describe them as impressionist waiters.

The winning entry in this category, which also included cookery writing, was a review of the restaurant Bloom's, in Golders Green, north- west London. It was written by 31-year-old Adam Taub, who was a lawyer until recently but has now started to work as a scriptwriter.

OVERALL WINNER

Dylan Winter's winning entry in this category is printed left. Winter, aged 40, is a freelance radio journalist from Botolph Claydon, in Buckinghamshire. He has worked on Farmer's Weekly, and as a regular presenter of Radio 4's Farming Today.

THE CLOCKWISE FISH

BY DYLAN WINTER

SOME tiny incidents have the power to haunt you for a lifetime. Like pinpricks of rust on a car they blister and grow with the years. Mine involved a fish. A humble herring. The image of that fish has been rattling around my head for the last 20 years. I see no reason why it should not accompany me to the grave.

I was up in the north-west of Scotland near Oban where the countryside is pockmarked with billboards cajoling tourists to tour tweed spurtling mills or Trossachs knitting factories.

Usually I am completely blind to such blandishments.

But it was raining.

Which is how I came to be walking around the Sea Creature Centre.

These places have sprung up all around Britain's coasts but this was the first ever. I presume some double- breasted marketing whiz got hold of the concept and franchised it out. Probably retired to Tuscany by now.

For all that, the idea remains a good one: catch a few local fish and crabs, bung them in tanks, open a snack bar and charge the gawking public an entrance fee. What could be simpler?

Being the first of its kind, this place had a pleasant nip and tuck feel to it. The building had once done service as a farmer's barn. Nets and floats were strung from the ceilings, the walls were decorated with crudely painted fish and the cafe even sold locally made food - fish pies, pasties, proper chips.

The tanks contained confused crabs, gaping clams and an infinite number of snail-like creatures. There was a small display about salmon farming and a giant black plastic tank with hundreds of halibut lying in the bottom ogling back into the curious faces of the public.

The centre-piece of the whole show was a magnificent 20ft-diameter glass doughnut called "THE HERRING RING". You could stand in the middle and watch the 400 herrings diligently swimming anti-clockwise around the tank.

Except the one which was going in the opposite direction.

A hell of a time, it was having. Ducking and weaving, dipping and diving in a constant attempt to avoid colliding with the 399 fish going the other way. It was the piscatorial equivalent of driving up the wrong side of the motorway.

I stood and watched to see how long before it gave up and started swimming with the flow. It didn't. Five, 10, 15 minutes passed and it was still at it. I had a cup of tea and read the newspaper. When I came back to look there it was - still heading the "wrong" way.

At one side of the room stood an attendant. He was a man in his fifties with the same blank expression shared by all in his profession. His sort have overheard every inane, stupid or crass comment the public is capable of making.

I walked over, stood beside him, and gestured in the direction of the herring ring.

"That fish," I said.

"Aye," came the reply.

"Does it always swim the wrong way?"

"Aye."

"How long has it been doing that?"

"From the second day it arrived here at the Centre," he said without even looking in my direction. "That's two years now."

I thought for a moment. OK, it took longer than a moment to work out that at one revolution per minute in a year they would go around the tank almost half a million times. That clockwise fish really knew how to stick to its principles.

"Is this the first batch of herrings?" I asked.

"Fourth," came the reply.

"Ever been another one like it? Swimming the wrong way, I mean?"

"In every batch ..." he paused, milking the statement for every ounce of drama before portentously adding, "so far."

"I suppose I am not the first to notice the fish, am I?"

"Third today sir," he said.

Two decades have passed, and that damn fish continues to rattle in my head. I have spent a lot of time in traffic jams, in bed at night and standing in line at the Post Office ruminating about its motives.

Perhaps the clockwise fish was going back to see where all the other herrings came from. Maybe it was selflessly acting as a sort of marker so that the other fish could keep a tally on how many circuits they had made - counting off the millions the way a condemned man scratches marks on the wall of his cell. What would happen if all the fish saw sense and started swimming his way? Would he turn and swim against the shoal? What if it had been born a goldfish and lived alone in a bowl? How could a lonely goldfish show its individuality?

I honed it down to one of two possible explanations Either the fish was mad or it was merely acting as conduit for a message from God.

Madness is an attractively simple explanation. Assume that the fish has a wire loose in its brain and the problem is solved. But the attendant said that there had been four such fish - one in each tank. For all I know there could have been 10 more batches since I was there. Too much of a coincidence. Ask a mathematician to work it out.

So that leaves us with God. But what does the message mean? I have no answers.

There are two more things about the story. One concerns the three people who asked about the fish the day I was there. I rang the Centre and discovered that on a good wet midsummer day they would average between 800 and 1,200 visitors. About one in 400 visitors was sufficiently interested in the fish to ask a few questions - which is uncannily close to the ratio of clockwise to anti-clockwise fish.

One other thing. It concerns the fate of the herrings once the decision has been made to replace them with a new batch. Remember those locally produced pies and pasties.

No exceptions were made - even for the one in 400.

So what price individualism now? And how come so many people think the song "My Way" was written just for them?

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