The Humiliation of Winning

I don’t have much regard for puritans, but I like those 17th century puritan names like, Justice, Capability and Barebones. I think if I had a puritan name it would probably be Humiliation. It has a nice ring, Humiliation Briant, unless it got shortened to Hugh, which doesn’t sound so good.

Speaking of humiliation, after eight years of junior school I graduated in 1970. The climax of the school year was Sports Day, which took place the first Saturday of each July. Our parents were invited to a field near Portslade to watch us perform feats of athletic mastery on the freshly mowed grass. 

It was the age of Bloody Sunday and Vietnam, but for a couple of hours the clean-limbed sons of Britannia ran, and threw, and jumped, as if it was still 1913, the Battle of Somme had never happened, and we still ruled the waves.

My own field of excellence was the afternoon tea, which took place at four o’clock on the dot. I always competed with great success for the little egg mayonnaise sandwiches. I traded my cheese sandwiches with Mike Brown, my alphabetical sibling to one side, and I traded my cupcakes for Glyn Adams’s egg sandwiches the other side. 

Meanwhile, a large tent lurked like the carcass of a rotting white whale at the north east corner of the field. As teatime drew to a conclusion the flaps of the tent were lifted open revealing––not decomposing blubber, but the table of glittering trophies. Right in the middle, like a silver baptismal font, rose the Victor Ludorum, the champion of champions. Who would be taking that one home? We filed past the tables towards the prize-giving tent so we could find out. I kept sharp eye open and nearly always found a couple more egg sandwiches en route. Mike would pounce on any stray cheese ones.

Eight years I’d been at the school. Eight sports days. Eight prize givings, and what had I won? Bugger all. Not even a chrome-plated thimble graced our mantlepiece. But this year was going to be different.

The one thing I was good at (apart from egg sandwiches) was art. At home and at school however, the message had been the same: “Yes, you’re good at art, but it won’t help you when you grow up, so you shouldn’t waste your time with it.”  

But now, in my final semester at the school, they’d begun art classes on Friday afternoons––and not only had they begun art classes, there was an Art Prize! The smallest silver cup on the table, but still a silver cup. My cheetah drawings were the best by a mile (a mile which they could run in a minute). My peregrine falcons stooped like thunder, and my Tyrannosaurus Rex’s stomped across the cartridge paper like vengeful demons from the underworld.

That art prize was going to be mine. I knew it. I stuffed my final sandwich, and marched towards the tent like Achilles at the gates of Troy.

We were sat cross-legged in a neat semi-circle in front of the prizes, and our parents were placed on chairs in a bigger circle around the outside of us. A Conservative MP gave a succinct and witty speech, and then the prize giving began.

I zoned out. I wasn’t in line for any of the first trophies, which were all for sport. I pulled up a long grass stalk and used it to sword-fight with Mike Brown.

Then everything went silent. It as if I’d been plucked from the South of England and placed in the Asteroid Belt for a moment. Mike stared at me. “Go on,” he said. 

“Well done,” said Glyn, patting me on the back.

Everyone was staring at me. The Tory MP spoke my name in a questioning way, and held up a silver cup. It wasn’t the Art Prize. What the heck had I won?

I found my feet and crossed the ten yards of lawn over to the MP, who said, “Well done, son,” shook my hand, and gave me the cup. 

I went back to my seat and peered at the inscription at the base of the cup: the Cooper Boxing Trophy? Why? I was okay at boxing, but I was by no means the best. “All right,” I thought. After seven years of nothing I was actually going to win two prizes. I could live with it. They would make a nicely symmetrical display on the mantlepiece.

Finally, there was that one little trophy remaining. The MP raised it up. “This is the very first time the art prize has been awarded.”

I was almost embarrassed to be winning it for the first time. My name would be the first one to be inscribed on the base. I uncrossed my legs and handed the boxing trophy to Mike. I wasn’t going to be late going up for this prize.

The MP beamed. “And the very first winner is…”

I got to my feet.

“Simon Fanshawe!”

What the…! Fanshawe!? I sat back down as quickly as I could, squashing a cheese sandwich Mike had been saving for afterwards.

Fanshawe probably deserved it. His cheetahs looked like hippos with acne, his peregrine falcon looked like a parrot falling off its perch, and his T. Rex looked like an apoplectic kangaroo, but I supposed it was nice that, like me, he’d at least won something in his final days at the school.

Prize-giving was over, we joined our parents, then headed towards the gates and home.

I looked at the boxing cup. For seven years this long walk had been a march of humiliation. I studied the other boys. In previous years everyone had seemed to be holding a trophy. Now nobody did. I realized that at least ninety percent of the school would never win anything. For almost my entire time at the school I’d been part of that humble majority. Now I was part of the other ten percent. In fact it was less than ten percent, because almost nobody won just one prize. Most of the winners won several every year.

I watched the late afternoon sun reflecting off the Victor Ludorum into Andy Campfield’s face. He didn’t look happy. His dad followed behind with his other four or five prizes. He didn’t look happy either. Andy had just found out that his stellar sporting achievements weren’t going to get him into senior school. His lionization was right here, right now, and nowhere else. 

After all those years of being a loser, I’d joined the ranks of the hollow winners. 

Simon Fanshawe, on the other hand, looked more like a cheetah than a lion, his narrow chest puffed out, standing tall above a wildebeest he’d just downed.

He might have been the only happy person in the entire dismal parade.

I told myself that nobody gave a monkey’s about who won the art prize, apart from the person who won it––and the other person who thought that he should have won it instead.

I sometimes get asked if I wish anything had been different in my life. I wish I’d won the boxing cup my very first day at the school, then for the next eight years I’d have known that all prizes were rubbish, and winning them is probably just as humiliating as not winning them.

This prize might even have been worse than humiliating. The fact that someone thought I was good good at punching people on the nose led me onto a dismal path for the next couple of years.

And humiliation beyond anything I could have imagined.