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2021

Winner: Sue Yuan

The question for this year was "What do you hold dear?"

The judges said about this year's winning entry

The judges found this to be a beautifully written essay that focused on a single object, a pair of Khaki Trousers, to explore some vital themes of our time including belonging, consumerism and care. The story that unfolded travelled cleverly and sensitively through time and space, starting during the Cultural Revolution in China, and ending with pertinent questions about the present. It demonstrated how listening carefully and respectfully to people’s stories can help us all reflect on our own lives, and what we hold dear. It was an incredibly evocative and generous piece of writing that resonated profoundly with the panel.”

Read the winning entry

A pair of khaki trousers

Along the precipitous curves and cliffs of the Sichuan mountains, a young girl runs in barefoot. Her ill-fitting homespun khaki trousers seem like a floor-length piece of dress that burden her long trudge home.

Living in rural Sichuan province during the 1970s was more about surviving rather than living. The Cultural Revolution that began during mid-1966 was too baffling and perplexing for a young girl of only 3 years-old to comprehend, yet from her mother, she understood that her father had to undergo “criticism” in order to “transform” from a village elementary school teacher to a staunch patriot.

The purpose of the “criticism” was for intellectuals and property owners, or landlords, to be publicly shamed in order to protect the society from their existential threat of potential rightist rhetoric. Nevertheless, the sharp lances that the Red Soldiers pointed at my grandfather’s face when he was arrested made absolutely no sense to my mother, who was only 8 years old at that time.

My grandparents inevitably lost their jobs during the Cultural Revolution, so they had to start side hustles in order to provide for their 3 young teenage brothers and one little girl. The pair of khaki trousers was a piece of clothing that the little girl, my mother, inherited from her three brothers and was gifted to her during her 10th Chinese New Year celebration.

Celebration would be an irresponsibly exaggerated description of our family’s circumstances. While many other families in the village had pieces of delicately smoked Sichuan spicy sausages and other freshly captured fish prepared for New Year dinner, my mom and her siblings only had one piece of marinated lean pork to share among the four.

The piece of baggy cotton trousers from my mother’s brother that no longer fitted him soon became an indispensable asset to my mother, as it was her only pair of bottoms for a very long time. It was homespun and had rolled-up bottoms that was customized to fit my mother’s short height, though it was also comical to the other kids at school because my mom would be the only one wearing such prissy, ill-fitted bottoms.

However, despite “silly” appearance of the trousers, my mother prized it dearly. Not only because it was one of the only clothes she owns, but because it also encompasses the warmth of her family struggling through deprivation together. It had secretly sewed-in patches and pockets to hide pieces of coins that her oldest brother furtively gave her in order to buy succulent, tender peaches from the village-center in Spring. The carefully tailored bottoms that could pin up and down by grandma facilitated the mowing hogweed in the field. The ill-fitting and awkward waist that grandma had to re-spun for mother helped her roam freely on mountain roads and wheat fields without her bottoms falling off.

Though the pair of khaki trousers is seemingly worthless in the fast-paced consumerism society that we currently indulge in, it’s invaluable to me, my mother, and my family as it carried memories (and stains) from a period of extreme hardship, hunger, and poverty.

However, the historical importance of this piece of clothing does not only pertain to my family. It reflects the austere conditions faced by our society and culture as a whole. It also reminds us the best and worst of our society at that time – a period of silencing and horror, but also a time of unity and love seen in billions of households represented by millions, if not billions of pairs of khaki trousers. It was an epoch of extreme poverty, famine, and antiintellectualism, yet an epoch of solidarity and hope.

The pair of trousers is no longer wearable now, yet my mother keeps it safe in her closet. The patched, deeply worn and washed out patterns incorporate my family’s deep concern and love towards my mother, the youngest of them all. It reminded my mother and my family of the times when even survival was a luxury. It reminded me of my place of origin – the dales of Dayi, Sichuan, and the exhausting yet rewarding journey of opportunities that brought my family to where we stand now.

As someone who was born into an era of technological advances, my privileges enable me to enjoy high-quality education, housing, and healthcare. However, the pair of khaki trousers allows me to contemplate the impacts of the Cultural Revolution, and the tangible destruction that it brought to families and individuals. It deteriorated my grandmother’s health and costed my grandfather’s career; however, it made my family comprehend what it takes to be a true family.

An old Chinese proverb superbly concludes, “kinships are tested in misfortune”. The adversity that my family faced in unity led to astonishing transformations. My mother’s sociocultural upbringing has formulated her resilience and perseverance that attributed to her success, bringing many others out of the small, isolated village of Dayi.

Material anthropologist Daniel Miller pointed out in his book, The Comfort of Things, that people who develop strong relationships with commodities and items are “the same people who develop strong relationships with others”. To develop a strong relationship with an item, one must value it as being emotionally substantial.

Some argue that profligate consumerism encourages unlimited acquisition of goods, thus people fail to be satisfied. This is true to an extent. I argue that consumerism’s issue arises only when people consumer too rapidly that disenables them to reflect on what they already own, not when more is consumed. The faster we consume, the less we reflect.

Hence, I value reflections. Upon reflection, an item as insignificant as the pair of khaki bottoms represents a microcosm of individual events that determine the progress of our society. It is also an emblem of my roots, kinship, and family values, which largely shapes who I am now. An important question now emerges – what can I do with these critical reflections? I say, with reflections, I can find answers to life.

Winner: Simon Ezra-Jackson

The judges said about this year's winning entry

“A powerful and entertainingly written piece which starts in the present, delves back into the past for insight and then looks forward to a future of continued inaction over climate change. It picks up on a highly prescient point that protestors , particularly protestors who disrupt daily life , are often treated as unwanted outsiders. Their inconvenience remain the preoccupation of society rather than the issues they espouse. The inclusion of The Sun insults directed at XR along with official Government classification as extremists provides compelling evidence of society’s casual assignation of outsider status to Extinction Rebellion and groups like them. Striking miners from the 1980s, poll tax protestors from the 1990s, fathers’ rights campaigners from the early noughties ,will all recognise this treatment. The arguments in favour of disruptive, even illegal action, are cleverly made , especially in drawing on ethical morality to talk about the futility of drawing on outcomes for justification. The writer takes time to deal with the counter arguments to the general thesis, dismissing them by deploying inherent internal contradictions against them. We’ve built statues to  lawbreakers of the past and accepted them as  legitimate political leaders, but seemingly, only after the daily inconvenience they caused, is long forgotten.  The argument is clear and well-structured throughout.”

Read the winning entry

From the Suffragettes to Extinction Rebellion: Civil Disobedience is 'Acceptable' Only in Hindsight

In April 2019 environmental protesters from the climate action group ‘Extinction Rebellion’ (XR) staged a series of demonstrations in central London. They chained themselves to bridges, blocked roads and occupied key sites for over two weeks. Around half a million people were affected by the disruption to traffic, and over a thousand activists were arrested.1

These kinds of mass protests are nothing new; breaking the rules to get attention for your cause has been a popular strategy for activists across history. Take the Suffragettes in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, who smashed windows and vandalized artworks to shine a spotlight on the fight for female suffrage; some groups used nonviolent civil disobedience to get their point across, famously the US civil rights movement and now the XR.

In school, I was taught about these historical lawbreakers. We were told how the Suffragettes planted explosives in churches and public buildings across the UK, and even bombed a crowded theatre in Dublin. While it’s hard to see how that wouldn’t be labelled as terrorism today, a century later these acts were described to me with a twinkle in the teacher’s eye. This goodwill extends beyond schools - there is a statue of the militant Suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst directly outside the Houses of Parliament.

Any contemporary copycats can expect a frostier reception from us, however. Similarly, disruptive stunts by environmental groups in the UK are tolerated at best and viewed with contempt at worst. A Counter-Terrorism unit was found to be classifying Extinction Rebellion as explicitly ‘extremist’, in documents sent to local authorities and government departments across the country. The pamphlet, warning of extremist groups, put XR “alongside neo-Nazi groups and jihadists”2 . This dim view is shared by many, including the most widely read newspaper in the UK, The Sun. It calls the group “preening, planet-polluting morons”, “sandal-wearing saddos”, and “virtue-signalling simpletons” - all in the same article!3

This reveals an interesting contradiction in popular perception of troublemakers. Once the dust has settled and the once-controversial cause has gone mainstream, society dons its rose-coloured glasses and condones rule-breaking actions. Violent bombers like the Suffragettes are lauded or at least understood, but heavens forbid nonviolent XR protesters make a fuss now. Perhaps this hypocrisy comes from a sense of nostalgia, but I wonder if it’s hindsight that lets us put aside partisan squabbles and appreciate the wider picture that so many activists could see from the beginning.

Whatever its cause, this doublethink is sending a message to climate activists today. They are told that facing the existential threat of mass migrations, political chaos, widespread biodiversity loss and global warming on a scale not seen for millions of years is insufficient cause to justify disruptive acts. One is led to wonder what is?

The minority who do support the XR today, might defend their lawbreaking actions by insisting that they are ‘legal’, so long as you use a broad definition of the term. For example: imagine that you, an American, are out walking and you see a mass shooter on the other side of the road. They haven’t noticed you. You could cross the road and tackle them, saving multiple potential victims. However, in the US it is illegal to jaywalk (to cross the street without using a traffic light). Now, no right-minded person would see the misdemeanour as a reason not to cross the road. Obviously it is more important - more moral - to prevent catastrophe even if you commit a minor crime. It might even be seen as your duty to break the law in that situation. Note here a distinction between minor infractions and serious crimes; it would be significantly harder to justify threatening life or safety in the name of climate justice, and XR has no intention of doing so.

Activist Noam Chomsky famously applied this same sentiment to other criminal acts, in the context of opposing the Vietnam war: If you and I are fine with somebody jaywalking to tackle a mass shooter, shouldn’t we be fine with illegally derailing ammunition trains which would cause mass loss of life in Vietnam were they to reach their destination? Or, in the case of Extinction Rebellion, wouldn’t it be okay to hold up traffic by gluing oneself to an road4 , if it meant raising awareness - and getting action on - an issue that would endanger countless lives?

Some might see the examples as unrelated. It might be argued there is no guarantee that public attention, were it raised, would reliably translate into concrete action on climate change. In ethical philosophy this is a really important problem; if you base the morality of an action on its outcomes, but can’t predict those outcomes with any amount of certainty, then you’re on rocky ground. In response, an environmental activist might point to the increased discussion around climate change today as being the direct result of their frequent high-profile stunts and campaigns. It certainly does put pressure on lawmakers to at least look like they’re taking notice, and makes more radical policies a publically palpable option, shifting the overton window. 5 But even if it’s impossible to determine what’s cause and what’s effect, the protester argues, the risks of ignoring climate change are so great that if there’s even a chance of change then the lawbreaking is worth it.

Then there is the criticism that being public nuisances may put more people off of a cause than bring positive attention to it. Certainly there is an argument that the Suffragettes inspired animosity against the cause for women’s suffrage. However, the eco activists clearly subscribe to the ‘all press is good press’ attitude, and view every critic of their controversial methods as another voice raising the profile of their platform. They argue that many of the apoplectic articles and outraged op-eds criticising XR’s methods generally do not tar the wider climate movement with the same brush. After all, this struggle for climate justice is global and contains highly-esteemed public figures and activists like David Attenborough - who are beyond reproach in the eyes of the public.

Those still not convinced that XR has a licence to trouble-make may be right to be sceptical. However, as part of a society that praises previous lawbreakers, be they Suffragettes, civil rights protesters or Stonewall rioters, we all have already admitted that civil disobedience is permissible, so long as it’s for the right reasons. Of course there are causes which are rejected in hindsight as unreasonable and wrong just as they are rejected today - not all rulebreakers are right. The real question then becomes; will XR join the ranks of the venerated movers and shakers of history, or be condemned to join the miscreants who we reproach? Something tells me that those in the overheated and catastrophe-ridden future, with all the benefits of hindsight, might just understand why XR were so desperate to disrupt daily life.

Winner: Max Blansjaar

The elements for this year's Young Writer were:

  • Title: Home
  • Line of dialogue: "How did you know?"
  • Object: A photograph

The judges said about this year's winning entry

“This was an exceptionally strong year for the prize, with more than double the number of entries of previous years.  Nevertheless, Max's story was the unanimous choice of the judges.  The most striking thing about it is the voice - so fresh and vivid, buzzing with energy and lyricism.  There's real craft and skill to it, too. the way the different elements are woven together so that what we end up with is a genuinely powerful story of youthful idealism and regret.  A real achievement and a very worthy winner.”

Read the winning entry

Home

This is us at home, yeah, US in capital letters under the shade of an old oak tree near the river. Rum poured into empty beer cans. Young tongues wag loud. Coats laid inside-up as seats around a bluetooth speaker blasting ABBA from underneath a pile of now-empty crisp packets. Cinematic perfection, a coming-of-age film in 8K UHD. Watching, starring, directing: a dozen pairs of eyes, too young to understand anything, too old to want to.

Finally facing my Waterloo! Baa-ba-da-ba-daa-dum. It’s April, things are getting lighter; people are shaking winter off their furs. April sits directly opposite me. Tries to say something. But the pause between her sentences is too long, the rest of us have moved on. A disease of the young. Tough luck. What a tune! When did you say this was from? The 60s? Jeeeeeez.

Can’t find my lighter. Guys ca- oh.

No lighter, but April’s found a camera in her small denim rucksack. She pulls it out. One of those old ones, where the picture comes sliding out the bottom after you take it. I was there when she bought it. It’s cute, she told me then, and I knew immediately she’d become one of those self-absorbed hippies who took analogue photographs of their own feet all the time.

Picture! Everyone get under the- guys, I’m taking a picture of you, get und- guys, under the tree!

April waves her hands in the direction of the giant oak tree I’m leaning against. People come and sit next to me. I recognise them but not really. Do they recognise themselves? If we were seeds, we wouldn’t survive here. Nothing grows under this thing. It’s selfish with the soil and it blocks all the light. Ah, the wise old oak tree! Under the shade of which everything dies.

Okay.

Three…

two…

Come on, guys. Smile.

It’s a five-minute walk from here to the big house where April lives. The space behind it has been a building site for as long as I can remember: massive concrete boxes rising up from the earth, slowly, like zombies waking. Jupiter Green. Luxury four-bedroom properties.

We used to go out the back of April’s garden sometimes - through a gap in the bushes that only allowed for people our age - and lean right up against the thin metal gates, watch it all happen. Waste of time? Maybe. But hey, this is our home, ya know. What they doing out here growing zombies? Rats! We called them rats but they never heard us; or maybe they did, but they deemed the roaring of heavy machinery to be sufficient reply.

Like heavy machinery, April shouting her lungs out on an overcast Sunday evening in December twothousandandsomething. It’s one of those things you remember well.

“You know how much those houses gonna be worth?” April asked me that morning, eyes fixed on a bright yellow digger

Dunno. Like, a million?

"Yeh. How did you know?"

A guess. Who’s gonna live there? Commuters, she replied. Londoners, bankers, whatever.

(People in big houses are shapeshifters. Pretend they’re people who live in small houses by using words that people in small houses say. Pledge their allegiance to the struggle of the small-housers and go back to their big house when the blood starts to spill. Maybe that explains the events of that evening; and the way things went after it.)

The events: finish dinner later - you wanna see this. Past the statue of the old slaver, the old Victorian street with the Golden Arches and the local bakery’s plundered tomb under their shadow, to the big house where April lived. Round the back. April on top of a JCB under overcast skies - God knows how she got up there, someone said to someone else, or how she even got over the gates in the first place, someone else replied - scrawled slogan of protest on the banner she held. Screaming bloody murder. How they didn’t understand, or didn’t want to. Londoners, bankers. A million pounds!

People ran to get her down as soon as they saw her up there, of course. Little girl at great height. But they were all too late. Lucky that April always said she liked being in hospital. People make a fuss there; people never usually do.

Her parents:

These things are complicated, darling. You can’t just break into a bloody construction site and tell us you know what’s what. See, how it works is…well, it’s complicated. Don’t bother yourself with it. We still have a view on the north side, anyway.

April told me that calling things complicated was just a way of making things easy for yourself. I didn’t understand what she meant; I understand it now. But April threw her banner away and she started eating meat again and she stopped separating her plastic from her paper from her food from her soul and now we’ve outgrown the gap in the bushes at the back of her garden. Maybe it’d all left her disheartened, I guess, or maybe she realised she still had a view on the north side.

Wait, El, move closer, you’re not in the frame! Yeah, that’s good. Okay. Ready? Aaaaand

A dozen pairs of eyes, tired before they’ve even really woken up, staring down the lens of an old camera. You can see April’s house from here, though you have to look for it, these days it blends into its background, a sea of undead suburban mansions. Waterloo! Couldn’t escape if I wanted to! The tame creature I called home has transformed into a flesh-hungry beast, a monster that will grab me by the shoes and swallow me up and spit out an owl pellet of bones and feathers and fur. I’ll let it. The flash blinds me when the camera clicks, the mechanism whirrs; out slides the picture.

These develop better in the dark. April places the photograph under the old oak tree.

Ah, Christ. Didn’t she hear me think it? How everything underneath here dies?

2020

Winner: Tolu Odejide

The question for this year was “Where are you from”.

The judges said about this year’s winning entry

The judges found this to be a compelling essay exploring the complexity of self-defining, society-defining, and belonging. The fantastic use of literature made sense of your own experience while also linking this to wider patterns of experience relating to migrations. 

You managed to show a high level of introspection while also drawing on the work of others such as Chinua Achebe and Jing Yin – and this balance between personal insight and broader context resonated profoundly with the anthropologists on the panel.” 

Read the winning entry

Where are you from: Afro-Migrant Literature

Rather than focusing on other people asking ‘where are you from’, why not think about it as an internal question, one I ask myself almost every day.

The existence of a young 1st generation immigrant in the UK is one of jumbled identity. Like most things, my answer to the question, ‘where are you from’ is dependent on the context and circumstance of the situation I’m in. Many secondary questions come to mind, but the main one tends to be ‘how much do I want to belong.’

After years of shape-shifting my identity dependent on my environment, even asking myself the question can sometimes be confusing and frustrating. I decided that the only way I can know where I am really from is through a deep dive into my sense of self. In ‘The Self in Literature’, Irving Howe describes self as a ‘construct of the mind, a hypothesis of being’, informed by all of our interests and predilections, particularly our interests in literature.

Literature and writing have been powerful tools to explore culture and the individual. Through words, we manage to investigate the human experience and present it in a way that is easy to confront and question. I cannot say conclusively that this is a shared experience of all Afro-migrants, however, for me, literature has allowed me to understand the various conflicts that make their way into my identity and lead to the stutter before I spit out, ‘London’ or ‘Nigeria’.

A formative text for many Nigerians is Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart.’ It presents the conflict of identity between two separate people, a father and a son. It’s a near-perfect image of a scene that plays out in many intergenerational immigrant households. Okonkwo’s son Nwoye converts to Christianity and moves away from the family. They meet only once again, staring at each other over a widening gap of confusion and misunderstanding. The father, upset at the assimilation of his son into colonial white society. The son, irritated at his father’s archaic ways. This great chasm between the integrated and segregated is present in the life of many young 1st and 2nd generation immigrants – it’s the defining point of our identity crisis. Who do I really belong to? Where am I actually from?

This generational conflict informs some of the difficulty around answering the question by introducing another dimension. When I ask myself where I’m from, am I referring to myself as an individual or myself as a member of a community? Unsurprisingly, friction exists here as well. The inclination to identify the ‘I’, in this context, as a single person is primarily a modern Western concept. Émile Durkheim, in his seminal text, ‘The Division of Labour in Society’ (1893) makes the assertion that the ‘cult of the individual’ is part of ‘organic solidarity’ which only exists due to modern industrial society. This ‘cult of man’ allows for the acceptance of ‘all human miseries’ and broadens out the definition of humanity. Idealistically, the message becomes all are welcome.

And it’s true, to an extent. The theme of acceptance and ideas about being part of a collective human race, rather than a collective racial identity, are central to the immigrant experience. Teju Cole, a prominent Nigerian American author says just as much in his essay ‘Black Body.’ ‘I am not an interloper when I look at a Rembrandt portrait. A hunger for life…is about the incontestable fundamentals of a person: pleasure, sorrow, love, humour, and grief.’ Wanting to get away from the oft-constricting culturally motivated answers to the question is typical of the immigrant that has grown up in the West.

Unfortunately, things are never that simple, hence the double answer I mentioned earlier. Referring to one’s self as a part of a cultural collective is a far more traditional, non-Western idea. In his paper, ‘Beyond Post-Modernism: A Non-Western Perspective on Identity’, Jing Yin presents the Kemetic and Confucian alternatives to Western individualistic belief. They argue that to be a ‘full human’, one has to be rooted in relationship, especially relationship with those closest to us – our families. And again, this is true, to an extent. Culture remains a unifying and empowering force in my life, and I’m sure, the lives of many immigrants. The narrative of adaptability and determination, the one all immigrants share, the one I unconsciously affirm every time I proudly confirm myself to be Nigerian or African, is important to my sense of self.

The either/or argument I present here is unfairly simplistic. One does not have to just be an individual or just a member of a community. As far as I understand, you can be both. The question then becomes, ‘does society see it that way?’

In one of the more tragic perspectives presented in William Faulkner’s novel, ‘Absalom, Absalom!’, it seems impossible to inhabit more than one sense of identity. For Charles Etienne de St. Valery Bon, a biracial man, living in Deep South America in the aftermath of the civil war, born of a half-caste father and octoroon mistress-wife, this unfortunate reality never mattered more. Careening from the trappings of white privilege to the victimhood of postslavery black America, his story feels eerily familiar and modern. The dissonance between his own personal identity and what society and his communities choose to define him as leaves him tormented and lost. Suddenly, the question, ‘where are you from’ doesn’t matter anymore – the unwillingness to respect his multifaceted identity means that any answers are invalid as you’ve already decided who he is.

This plays out in contemporary society often. Insults like Oreo or Coconut – white on the inside, black (or brown) on the outside – persist. They actively encourage feelings of inadequacy around cultural identity, when things do not have to be so clear cut. So, when you ask ‘where am I from’, I have an answer for you, it’s just not very neat.

Winner: Amy Rushton

The judges said about this year’s winning entry

“This was a very topical piece which lent itself to a historical approach. What was impressive about this was how you kept the focus on your main point - the fantasy of British exceptionalism - throughout the whole piece even as you discussed different threads of your argument such as the empire, the response to the pandemic and Brexit. You used two very good historical examples to illustrate what you argued was mythmaking about how Britain was an exception, the Spanish Armada and the Second World War and you finished strongly.”

Read the winning entry

The Enduring Fantasy of British Exceptionalism

Boris Johnson’s apparent plan in early March 2020 to allow Covid-19 to spread through the nation may have costed thousands of lives, with estimates that the UK death toll could have been halved had we entered into lockdown just a week earlier.

Given the devastation occurring at the time in Italy, the UK Government’s decision not to impose the measures enacted in Europe now seems callous and even bizarre. Interwoven with their entire approach was the idea that we somehow didn’t need to impose those measures- that the death and pain which occurred there would not happen here, that Britain was an exception- an idea still prevalent as the Government relaxes lockdown measures. Throughout our politics, education and media, through direct comparisons or more frequently the language used, Britain harks back to a bygone era, one with a ‘glorious’ empire; or Britain standing alone against the Nazis with little but a stoic spirit to see us through. As COVID-19 has shown, this fantasy of British exceptionalism is capable of leaching into reality.

Many countries see themselves as being special or different in some way; it goes hand in hand with patriotism and in its best form it promotes the celebration of culture, diversity and progress. However, where other countries draw the line, Britain steps far beyond it and incorporates that national fervour into its political debate and policy. This can, and in the current COVID-19 crisis it has, proved devastating, particularly as it is founded on a lie.

The idea of the Empire is in many ways the foundation of such exceptionalism; that Britain was simultaneously a growing global superpower and a small island winning miraculous victories against larger powers, but when confronted with historical fact this narrative crumbles into mythos. We are only beginning to see our past as it really was- an exercise in colonialism, exploitation and slaughter which left millions dead across the planet. Despite the fact that the fantasy of the Empire is starting to unravel- particularly in the wake of Black Lives Matter shedding light on the cruelty and exploitation it was founded on- it still fuels the belief of a mighty and powerful Britain that is no longer a reality in today’s geopolitical climate.

Take the Spanish Armada; hailed as an example of Britain’s exceptionalism as a tiny country defeating a seemingly invincible foe; but this was not the miraculous victory it is believed to be. For one thing, the sinking of the Armada was not ultimately a massive setback to the Spanish- it did not end the war with Spain and England suffered its own devastating defeat in their “Counter Armada”. More importantly, the Armada was not actually invincible; bad weather, rotting provisions and terrible leadership meant most of its damage was either accidental or self-inflicted. Nor were the Spanish a massive force in comparison to the English- taking into account the merchant and private ships that were commandeered, their total force matched the Spanish. This fantasy of a tiny island capable of taking on the world’s superpowers has become part of a perceived image of ourselves, and it plays into the reaction to COVID-19, distorting the reality of how capable Britain actually is against a global pandemic.

The fantasy of the Empire has had far reaching consequences in the past few years, feeding into the Brexit referendum of 2016 which, for some, was a rejection of Europe and an assertion that Britain can stand alone. This is an idea that if anything has grown in ferocity since then. Brexit can be said to have been driven by a kind of nostalgia for Britain’s past, and just as prominent as the Empire in the rhetoric surrounding Brexit were references to the Second World War. Johnson’s coronavirus response speaks to the same WWII fantasy about Britain standing alone as his Brexit campaign did, but Britain was not alone: it was just part of an international effort. We were not alone at the beginning of the war when we had allies in the form of France, Poland, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, the Netherlands and many others; and we were certainly not alone at the end when the US, Soviet Union and more joined the fray. Many of the troops that served with the British came from India or Africa, and the battles in sea and on air were not fought alone either- Britain’s most successful squadron during the Battle of Britain was the Polish 303 squadron! Polish cryptographers and European resistance groups provided vital intelligence during the war, and it was financed through trading partners and dominions across the world. So the idea that Britain fought alone is a fantasy, a rose tinted view of what Britain is capable of, but that doesn’t mean it has no relevance to reality. The fact that the image of Britain as exceptional and a world leader is so embedded in our education and national values, reflects the importance it has to large swathes of the British public, which is frequently capitalised on by politicians.

Johnson’s entire election campaign was fought on the basis of Brexit, and as Brexit relies so heavily on British exceptionalism, it makes sense that he would then incorporate it into his premiership. Early in the pandemic he assured everybody that the British public will “take it on the chin”- “it” of course being the deadly virus that has already killed a significant number of the population and left thousands more hospitalised or living in dire economic conditions. He has spoken at length about his- as yet unrealised- “world-beating” track and trace system. As a man who tries to emulate Churchill in all he does, the resemblance to a World War II “British Spirit’ can hardly be missed. But the problem is when you look at the past through those rose tinted glasses, you begin to see the present that way too, and as much as Johnson might like to pretend otherwise, this virus is not a war and Britain cannot ‘fight’ it by standing alone. Our envisioned track and trace system is not world beating and a refusal to use the systems other countries have already realised and which are working well speaks to a dangerous insistence on being separate and different. This is the same desire that caused Johnson’s government to refuse to join PPE schemes with other European countries. The insistence on fighting a lone war is evidently costing lives, as did the decision to ignore the scientific realities of coronavirus early on in the pandemic, simply out of hope that Britain may be different.

The fantasy of Britain’s past obscures the reality of our present, and when we allow the language and ideas of British exceptionalism to enter our politics we allow them to distort reality with potentially destructive consequences. The truth is, we didn’t get through WWII or face off the Armada through British spirit alone- we had resources, luck and most importantly allies on our side. To pretend otherwise is to ignore our past as well as our present, and as the coronavirus crisis proves, it is killing us.

Winner: Elena Bardon-Davis

The elements for this year’s Young Writer were:

  • Title: Lovestruck
  • Line of dialogue: "What do you want me to do?"
  • Object: A cup of coffee

The judges said about this year’s winning entry

“Elena's story was the unanimous choice of our judges out of all 168 entries.  A tale of the comforts and limits of virtual reality in a dystopian near future, the story is full of flair, imagination and craft.  What really impresses is the way in which a complex and clever idea is made dramatic, vivid and moving, all in under 1000 words.  This takes real skill and talent and suggests a writer with an exciting future."

Read the winning entry

“And I said: ‘What do you want me to do?' at which point she said-”

What were they talking about? She couldn’t remember. Odd, because she’d re-lived this exact moment more times than she could count. It didn’t matter, though. It was better to focus on the more important things: memorising his smile, the quirk of his brow, the slanting grey scar over his upper lip.

Had his eyes always been that colour, she pondered? No, they were meant to be deeper, more like a black hole than a crumpled autumn leaf, the kind of sweet darkness you could lose yourself in. The world shimmered and between one blink and the next, the colour shifted. Yes, that was much better.

“What? Have I got something in my teeth?”

Jacob grinned at her and she smothered a smile beneath the curve of her coffee cup. She liked him like this. Here he was warm, brimming with humour and energy, alive; the live wire to her fuse.

“No, sorry. I was just lost in your eyes.” Her mouth was moving- she could feel it- but she wasn’t the one using it. It was like some invisible force had her by the puppet strings and was jerking her around a stage to a script she couldn’t read.

“Such a charmer,” Jacob chuckled.

“I do try my best.”

Her fingers twitched with the desire to lean across and lace her fingers with his. Instead, she tightened her grip on her cold, chipped coffee mug and took a sip. Her lips pinched together tightly. It was sour and nasty, ripe with an undercurrent of decay. It would do for now though, at least until she could scavenge for something better.

“Well, consi- consider me char- charmed,” Jacob said brightly, but the words snagged on his teeth. She frowned as his eyebrows twitched and his lips stuttered and strained like someone learning to smile for the first time. It didn’t look right.

“You’re welcome,” she heard herself say.

His eyes were almost black now; cold and immovable, like the lacquered marble that used to line her kitchen floor before it was razed to ash and rubble. His grin was plastic.

“A-And I said: ‘What do you want me to d-d-'”

Mallory frowned. No, that wasn’t right. He’d already said that.

She chanced a glance outside.

Beyond the café’s snow-lined window, the world moved on carelessly. The clean, ivory sky swum with snowflakes. The street bustled with sallow-faced transmuters on the grind. Children scampered between legs and light poles with tired parents bobbing behind like half-exhausted helium balloons. If she closed her eyes and listened to the thrum of the city, it was almost like she was actually there. It was so familiar, it made her heart hurt.

Look a little closer though and you’d start to see the motion blur. Blank, repeating faces swum through the crowd like moments of film rewound and replayed in real-time. Sounds and lights scattered and re-assembled on repeat, always the same and never changing.

Jacob was still stuttering.

“-love you- lo-love you-”

Mallory swallowed.

His top half was starting to drift through the seat behind him. The waitress sweeping beyond the counter was still and unmoving, a shred of stolen time locked unnaturally in place. Beneath Mallory’s fingers, lines of blue computer code flickered in and out of existence and she winced.

Glitch-outs always did make her feel sick.

“Computer, stop!”

In an instant, the café’s calm and quiet veneer spasmed and sputtered away. Jacob’s cake platter melted into shattered shards of glass- the remnants of a beer bottle smashed in a fit of desperation. The empty booths and tables faded to dingy office cabinets strewn with empty ration packets, pill bottles and cigarette butts, bullet shells and first aid kits. There was a stained sleeping bag in one corner of the room and a tossed-over desk jamming the door.

“Memory simulation error: please re-adjust visual sensors,” the voice in her ears said.

Fingers trembling, she felt for the latch at the back of her head and the visor fell apart in her hands with a crack. There was smoke spewing from the outlet like exhaust from the end of a shotgun barrel and her immediate resigned huff kicked up a layer of undisturbed dirt from the table.

That’s what she got for trusting an online vendor: second rate projector chips. Good thing she had spares.

Outside the safety of the abandoned office, the sound of distant gunshots and grieving screams ruptured a tentative quiet. Menacing streaks of red light speared through the cracks in the boarded windows and she shoved down the sickening urge to look outside.

Guilty tears pricked behind her eyelids as she pried out the fried sensors and wrestled the new ones into place.

Just ignore it, she told herself quietly. There's nothing you can do. Re-live those precious moments before the bullets started flying. Forget about the outside world ruled by ghosts of a corrupt society. Pretend that there’s more left of the world than skies and oceans bruised black by pollution and countries laid to waste in the crossfire of clashing ideals.

One day, she would wake up from the simulation and everything would be better again. Someone else would fix this. They had to. After all, there was nothing she could do.

The computer whirred cheerfully, “Would you like to resume the simulation? Would you like to resume the-”

Her fingers twitched, the sensors sparked and the world burst back into colour and light. Grieving screams faded to birdsong, the clang of the bell above the door and the giggles of long-dead children. Jacob smiled at her with a silent joke twisting his lips, warm and soft and alive .

All was perfect; as it should be.

“Memory File 52: ‘Lovestruck’ re-selected. Resuming simulation in three… two…”

“I love you, Mallory.”

Her coffee was cold.

2019

Young Writer Prize Winner 2019 Photo

Winner: Jack Probert

Above is Jack receiving his trophy from Professor Frances Corner OBE, the Warden of Goldsmiths, at the Goldsmiths Prize ceremony. Jack won for a story that the judging panel felt:

"...stood out for its ambition and accomplishment.  Multiple layers and voices mix fairytale and realism together to create a narrative of power, skill and feeling, all within the very challenging limit of 1000 words."

The elements that had to be included in this years' entries to the Goldsmiths Young Writer Prize were:

  • Title: This Is The Night
  • Line of dialogue: "Can we stop for a minute?"
  • Object: a ladder

Read the winning entry

(Please note: this story was written by Jack under the name “Mo Ayari”)

This is the Night – by Mo Ayari 7C

Once upon a time there was a merman and all he wanted to do was see the stars of the night sky. From his cave at the bottom of the sea he would look up every night and look up at the stars but he could not make them out properly because of the water above him. Their light would turn soft and slippery and slide onto the top of the sea like white foam. The merman would sometimes cry at night because he knew that was where his mother had gone. She was watching him from up in the sky, with the stars, and he wanted just to see her once. Mermen do not cry very often but this one did and every time he did the sea all around him heaved and shook with his sadness. He would sing and hoped his mother heard him one day and knew he was safe.

One day a ship came by. The people on board had heard his singing and they thought it was very beautiful. They came to see who was making the noise. They thought it might be a mermaid because it had the same brilliant shine of a wave as it breaks and its deep blue cracks and splits into millions of greens and turquoises. Really it sounded so nice because he sang while thinking of his mother and the thousands of dazzling little stars that danced around her in the sky but he did not say this when the men on board took him on because they would not like it. They all thought waves were very beautiful and so the merman decided to think that too, just to be sure they would like him. They saw a scar on his arm and they were sad. They said sorry. He did not know why because he had always had the scar from when he was very young.

“The writing gets illegible here: as is to be expected from a less high-achieving student. I’ve written it down on his page in my notebook. Disappointing – the rest of the story is…promising; it’s just this handwriting problem again. A bit of a let-down, really. Quite a shame, given the rest of the class has been showing such pleasing progress. This just feels a bit, well, garbled: English through a kaleidoscope.”

The merman looked on as the men dressed him in some spare clothes of theirs. They told him he looked very good and said they would show him to their Prince when he woke up. The Prince would be very happy to see someone so unique as him. The men were a bit confused when the merman did not look as happy as they wanted him to when they told him he was going to meet The Prince. He did not say he was happy. But he did not say anything. The men could tell he understood them. Sometimes he would nod or shake his head but he would not speak.

“Again, I feel like he has the story in his head, it just won’t quite click with what want. I know it’s only been a term now, but I really think he can just push a bit harder for me and really show me what he’s got to give: I want 110%, not 40. Let’s go on:”

The men took him in front of The Prince, who was a very kind man. The Prince talked to him. He said some very nice things to him but he grew bored. He said it was suspicious that the merman did not talk back to him. The Prince got out a dagger. The merman was very afraid and did not want to get hurt. “Say it.” growled The Prince. “Say hello to me and I will help you. Just speak to me and I will not hurt you. I want to hear you speak in my tongue.” He lunged at the merman, who ran back to the side of the boat. He began to cry and The Prince began to laugh – what sort of merman cries? He had expected a terror, a beast of the deep with a set of teeth to match, yet this is what he got? Pathetic. The merman was pathetic.

He opened his mouth. He tried. He tried to sing the words but they came out jagged and spiked. They were not to the merman. He opened his mouth again and tried. All that came spilling out was sea foam. The Prince lunged at him again, trying to strike this strange creature from the deep dark depths through his heart. The merman cried out as the dagger plunged in and foam came bursting out the gash. He melted away into the sea. The Prince sighed: he really should have tried harder to speak.

The merman looked up at the sky from where he lay, a pile of white foam, drifting between the stars that were reflected on the ocean. “So,” he said to himself, “this is the night.”

“See – it gets good by the end. I think Mo is really starting to figure out how to tell stories now. It’s been quite a positive improvement. In terms of spelling and grammar, he’s come on far; however, again, it just feels like it isn’t quite natural for him yet. It’s like he’s holding onto something else and I’m not sure what or why.”

“Can we stop for a minute? Could you just repeat that last bit, please?”

I can see the look in Mr Ayari’s eyes. He is terrified. The first Parents’ Evening is always the worst. They usually get better. Behind them, I can see him thinking, translating. Him and Mo have climbed the first rung on this ladder, this stairway to a better life than the one they left behind. In his old language, in his old life, ‘foam’ and ‘tears’ sound almost the same. I know because it used to be mine.

 

2018

Sally Piper, winner of the Young Writer Prize 2018 at the awards ceremony with our Warden, Patrick Loughrey.

Winner: Sally Piper

Sally's story follows Edna, a hotel owner forced out of her town just for being different. After many years, Edna finally plucks up the courage to go back - unsure of the welcome that awaits her.

The elements that had to be included were:

  • Title: One Day
  • Line of dialogue: What happened to you?
  • Character Action: A character throws an object in a river

Read the winning entry

One Day

Across the river from Edna’s hotel was the town. She rarely let herself look across to the cluster of buildings that constituted it, except at night when the lights were softly glowing and the details were obscured.

Edna’s hotel was called The River’s Way, and she hadn’t been to the town in nearly fifty years. She had Angie, after all, the young girl who helped out a couple of afternoons a week, to run to the shops for supplies. But other than that, she could usually find everything she needed in the hotel. She had a good team of staff who didn’t tend to ask many questions and always kept things ticking over.

“I have no need to,” is what she said to anyone asking why she never went across the river; it was the truth, really, though not the whole truth. Edna didn’t believe in lies of omission; the guests did not need to know her whole life story. Besides, if she were to tell them that she had been turned out of the town by the torch-carrying villagers who held her in contempt, it might stop people visiting, and she was quite reliant on the town’s tourism.

It didn’t really matter that the people who lived in the town were quite foul. It didn’t matter that the night when they had come for her and Catarina was still enough to make her wake up sweating.

“Yes, I am the founder of The River’s Way,” she would reply when asked, and she allowed pride to inflate itself a little. “We - I bought it nearly half a century ago, can you believe it? Still going strong. Of course, at first I lived in the main town, but then… well, you know how prices rise! Plus, I personally never trust someone who owns a hotel and yet does not believe it good enough to stay there.”

That is what Catarina had said on the first morning after they had fled to try and reassure both of them; they were both shaking, holding each other for what felt like hours in silence. And then she had said that. Softly, quietly, in her special way, and Edna felt her heart beat finally start to ease. Catarina had always known exactly what to say to turn things into a positive.

But now, on cold mornings when the town was starting to stir and the harsh sound of it seemed to bore into Edna’s ears even over the flow of the water, there was nothing to break the silence. And Edna’s arms had been empty for several decades now.

“What happened to you?” the letter from her sister read; it was old and tattered, but looking at it still brought tears to Edna’s eyes. “When are you coming home? We miss you. Times are changing, Eddie, I swear - you and Catarina, you should come by. It’s Ma’s birthday tomorrow, and I know she’d like to see you…”

When the letter had first come, Catarina, with her now aching cough and premature greying, had stroked Edna’s back as she cried. Edna could still feel the touch when she scanned the blurry page. The times might have changed, but had the tides?

She wondered, with a pang, whether her sister would even recognise her now. It certainly wouldn’t be her mother’s birthday again any time soon. And yet…

“I’m popping out for a quick walk. I might take the canoe, you know. The sun is shining, after all, and Mr Sands said yesterday that he’s seen some baby moorhens along the bank…” she said to Angie out of nowhere, taking herself by surprise.

Angie knew, of course; she always knew. She smiled gently, and raised one eyebrow.

“Do you want me to come with you?”

“No, I’ll… I’ll be going alone. Won’t be long, though.”

“Take as long as you need.”

The canoe was small and a bit battered, but it was Angie’s preferred mode of transport to the town, so Edna felt obliged to trust it. It wobbled slightly in the water, but Edna got herself comfortable and took some deep breaths. Already, from her lower position in the water, the gargoyles that decorated the town’s church seemed far closer and far more grotesque than she was used to.

She almost got right back out again. But then she closed her eyes, and thought of Catarina. Of her smile. Of her softness and warmth and beauty. Of how, even after everything, she maintained a sense of pity for the townspeople who had turned them out; they were only doing what they believed was right by God, she had said. She said that one day they’d come to accept them, and she’d even made Edna promise not to ignore the acceptance when it came. She had died too soon to see the promise kept, but Edna decided in that moment not to break it completely.

So, with still-shaking hands and a head swimming with what could be, Edna dropped the oars into the water, throwing the rope into the river in a sudden movement to let it trail behind her like the wedding trains they never got to have.

And, as she began to drift towards the place that had been her home in childhood, and away from the place which had been her home ever since, she felt calmer than she had in years.

That’s the way the river flows, she supposed dreamily; one day it is turbulent and fierce, and the next day it calls out to you, honey-sweet and repentant. And, when the river calls, you answer.

2017

Young Writer Prize 2017 winner Miranda Barrett accepting her award

Winner: Miranda Barrett

Her entry tells the story of Charlotte and Ben, close companions from childhood, driving across the country in the hope of finding safety amongst a rapidly unravelling world.

The elements that had to be included were:

  • Title: Saviour
  • Line of dialogue: What are you doing in here?
  • Location: A broken-down train
  • Action: A character drops a set of keys 

She said:

“I’m delighted to have won this competition and am very proud the judges liked my submission. It came as an extremely pleasant surprise to find out I had won. Writing opportunities for young people – especially older teenagers – are limited outside of school so I am very grateful to Goldsmiths for creating this prize.”

Dr Thomas Lee, a Goldsmiths postdoctoral tutor and member of the judging panel, said:

“The panel were blown away by Miranda’s story. Her writing showed maturity beyond her years, and provided a compelling snapshot into the lives of two young people struggling to come to terms with a changing world.”

Read the winning entry

Saviour

“What are you doing in here?”

Charlotte turned.

“Come look at the view.”

“But”-

“Ben, seriously, look.

The strip of railway that split the countryside in two had fallen out of use months ago, but that was no explanation for the engine quietly rusting into the landscape. Maybe it was waiting for repairs that would never come or maybe, like so many in recent times, the driver and all the people inside simply got up and walked away.

The stagnant water that pooled between the seats also hung in the air, leaving everything damp to the touch, as though the carriage itself was the carcass of some recently departed animal. In the far corner a cluster of bottles and cigarette butts lay festering, the trail of scuttled debris leading to it the only sign of recent habitation. A fine layer of broken glass crunched underfoot like snow. It smelt like gin and dust.

Charlotte was sitting in one of the empty windows, a thread of smoke unravelling above her head. She shuffled up as he swung his long legs over the windowsill and joined her, train wobbling ominously. He followed her gaze- and felt his breath catch in his throat.

“Woah…”

“Yup.”

They’d been driving with their backs to it but now he saw, next to the thin line of motorway halving the scrubland, poised on the horizon was a gigantic statue. It was the figure of a man, simply moulded, one hand reaching towards the sky. From the knees down it was encased in a giant mound of stone, not randomly uneven, like rubble, but jointed, like it’s feet were buried in a spine. The clay it was made from was stained a deep crimson, the bleak light behind it stencilled it’s outline into the clouds.

“That’s amazing!”

Charlotte grunted in approval. Stowing the cigarette in the corner of her mouth, she reached into her jacket pocket and produced a small tin, emblazoned with the logo of the bookshop she used to work at. The night the store was raided she’d escaped with only a stack of Batman comics and their entire supply of promotional mints. They rationed them out now to mark special occasions.

Solemnly they both took one. Ben let his melt on his tongue.

“How long till we get to the docks?” She asked.

“Two days.” Supressing a chill, he detached the car keys from his belt and began to toss them in the air. They jangled as they hit his hands. “Reckon it’ll be better in France?”

“It’s got to be, right? They still have a government.”

“I heard Germany fell last week.”

“I heard that too.” She looked at him. “Who did you vote for, that last time?

“I didn’t vote.”

“No. Neither did I.”

The keys jumped higher, glinting in the cold sunlight. Finally he missed and they fell to the train’s floor, disappearing into the trash. Cursing, he leant down to pick them up. Charlotte muttered something under her breath.

“What?”

“I said thanks for bringing me.”

She coughed, chucked the cigarette butt over the side. Coughed again.

“I’ve got no money, my flat burnt down and I can’t speak French. But you brought me with you. So, thanks.”

The train groaned as Ben straightened up, swallowing the mint whole. It stuck in his throat for a moment before slipping down.

“Of course I brought you, I’d get bored.”

She nodded.

“Besides…. You’re all I’ve got.”

She nodded again. After a moment she shifted awkwardly along the windowsill and put an arm around him. He hugged her back until she pulled away. Suddenly he laughed.

“What?”

“Remember when we made that voodoo doll?”

A grin spread across her face. “Mrs Williams, wasn’t it?”

“You made me bait!”

“Not bait, distraction. You were too chicken to do it yourself.”

“You got the hair though, right?”

“Hell yeah I did. Christ, remember we couldn’t figure out how to make the doll, so we just shoved it all in a sock?”

“And the googly eyes.”

“Oh yeah, I forgot that. That was your idea.”

“What did you do with it, anyway?”

“I don’t know, I think I forgot about it.” She snorted. “Hey, if it went up with the rest of the flat, maybe it worked.”

“Somewhere, in some retirement home, an old woman burst into flame.”

“Yup.”

He watched her hand wander towards the packet of cigarettes, retreating as she decided against it. A fleeting wind rattled through the train. He wouldn’t get a straight answer if he asked in the car. It may as well be now. It had to be now.

“You ok?” He asked.

Charlotte raised an eyebrow.

“Seriously.”

He realised it then. She looked sad. She hadn’t looked sad for a long time. Not since there were much smaller things to be sad about. Not when the radio stopped playing. Not when he’d picked her up on the curb outside her flat, everything she owned burning behind her. Not even that day a week ago when he’d started crying in the car.

“I don’t know, dude,” She said.

Ben paused. Then he reached out and pointed to the monolith on the horizon. The dying light outlined it in a burning red, clay darkening to the colour of blood.

“You know Anthony Gormley?”

“He’s an artist, right?”

“Yeah. He did The Angel of the North.”

“That one of his?”

“It’s the last one he ever did.”

“He’s dead?”

Ben exhaled slowly.

“He got caught in a riot. Trampled to death.”

“Damn.”

“Yeah… They put this one up just before Parliament was stormed. Some kind of last ditch attempt to keep the country together.”

“What’s it called?”

They looked at the statue, feet entrenched in the angular dirt, one hand cupping the sun.

“Saviour.”

A breeze whipped across the grass. They moved a little closer together. The train’s shadow spread like a stain over the earth. In ten minutes they would get back in the car.