Jason Goodwin looks back on his career as a competition judge, from destroying the hopes of teenage girls and would-be Olympians through to his latest endeavours.
When I was a child, I made the mistake of agreeing to judge a beauty parade organised by my sister and her school friends.
The ancient Greeks knew it was a rotten idea. My attempt to maintain harmony while being fair to the fair may not have led to the abduction of Helen, the launch of a thousand ships and the downfall of Troy, but the upshot felt similar. It was certainly swifter, and perhaps even a little louder, on a more limited stage.
The lesson I learned is to leave the judging of beauty pageants to people with natural tact, such as Donald Trump.
I put judging behind me after that, until the day I competed for a place at the regional heats with dozens of other eager school-age fencers. Victory might mean going on to the national finals and, ultimately, the chance to represent our country at the Olympics, although no one bothered telling me that. Nor did they explain that fencing bouts are judged by other competitors drawn from the lists, who stand behind the fencer and raise their hand when they detect a hit.
“To this day, I wonder if I destroyed a budding fencing career”
I never discovered whether I was looking for hits inflicted on my man or by him, and by the time I realised that this was a problem, it was too late to ask because the fight was in full swing.
Thinking quickly, I decided to note when my man got hit. That seemed wrong, however – we were on his side, in a way. Halfway through, I thought quickly again and began putting my hand up when he scored a hit on his opponent.
Soon, I became aware that I was not the only person looking flustered and confused on the piste, as we fencers call it. I flip-flopped through a couple more bouts before I was asked to leave and, to this day, I wonder if I destroyed a budding fencing career.
One of the competitors went on to produce all the ‘Harry Potter’ films, so if he was disappointed and enraged on the day, I like to think that maybe I unwittingly did him a good turn. It is so important to take the long view, as some of the ugly ducklings in my sister’s pageant have no doubt discovered to their satisfaction.
For many years, I was asked only to enter competitions, not judge them. I don’t think anyone held the fencing debacle against me – how could they know? – and it’s just a rule of numbers that competitions require more people to enter than to judge them.
“They do need a catchier name for the prize – perhaps they should follow the example of the Oscars and Edgars and call them the Winstons, with a small silver gilt maquette of Churchill presented to the winner”
Disco dancing with a pretty girl called Fiona won us the couples competition at a Blackheath social. She went on to become a very successful TV personality, which goes to show that it’s not the winning that counts, it’s what you make of it.
Lately, I have found myself judging book awards. First was the Stanford Dolman Travel Book Award; now it’s the Historical Writing Association’s non-fiction prize.
I think they do need a catchier name for the prize – perhaps they should follow the example of the Oscars and Edgars and call them the Winstons, with a small silver gilt maquette of Churchill presented to the winner? Otherwise, it’s very well organised.
My brilliant fellow judges understand exactly what to do and we have each been given a huge teetering pile of the most interesting, well-written and deeply researched history books published in the last year, which is certainly going to come in handy next Christmas. Currently, I am learning about pie and the Tudors. There is to be a longlist. The judges’ decision, as they say, will be final.
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