22 October 2015

T.S. Eliot Prize shortlist announced

Posted by John Clegg

From The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, Iona and Peter Opie, (1958):

Also deserving of remark, though marked much less than it was formerly, is the 22nd October, the day of the T.S. Eliot Prize Shortlist Announcement: ‘Ellie Ellie Thursdays’, as it is called among schoolchildren in Shropshire and Penzance, ‘Tom Day’ (Wigan only), ‘Announcement’ or ‘Nouncement’ (Shrewsbury and Ely, though also reported in Market Rasen). On the evening of the 21st, those children who have a favourite for the shortlist go to bed clutching a lump of black coal (Wallsend) or a holly bough (Staithes). A girl in Edinburgh (aged 12) tells us, ‘You must place your favourite collection under your pillow – if you dream of the author, they’re certain to get the prize, unless they turn their back on you in the dream. If they turn their back, that means the fix is in and Don Paterson is going to win it.’

On the morning itself, schools customarily declare a half-holiday. Gangs of neighbourhood ‘toughs’ may go ‘Hunting the Old Possum’; one of their number is dressed as close to T.S. Eliot as can be achieved with the materials to hand, placed in a barrow or buggy, and wheeled from house to house. ‘When we knock on the door, the householder brings down any books on the shortlist. The Possum bites each book on the spine, while the other boys chant “Into his mouth and down below, Onto the shortlist you must go”. Then the householder gives us pennies and fizzy pop.’ (Boy, 9.)

The shortlisted authors are quickly incorporated into skipping, ball-bouncing and counting-out rhymes:

Beautiful librarians,
Waiting for the past.
The Bone Man went to Jutland
In an old tin bath.

(Skipping rhyme, Wakefield: the third and fourth lines may contain allusions to the Napoleonic Wars and / or Last of the Summer Wine.)

Loop of Jade, Tim Liardot,
How many sonnets has Paterson got?
1, 2, 3, 4…

(Skipping rhyme, Aberstwyth)

Rankine won a Forward,
A Forward, a Forward,
Rankine won a Forward,
An Eliot as well.

(Ball-bouncing rhyme, Perthshire)

Perry, Perry
Quite contrary
Young Mark
Saw a shark
When he screamed
Tracey heard

(Playground rhyme, Cornwall, from girl of 7)

As well as private households, children in London and elsewhere are known to call on bookshops, for the strange ritual called Paying The Tipster. ‘You gives Lucky Jim your money’, reports one 11-year old boy, ‘and he tells you who’s going to win. A good tip is called a Dobby-Nicker. Then you tells your Da, and he puts money on Claudia Rankine for the double, and when he cleans up on the 11 Jan you get a cream bun, or it might be a shortbread horn.’