Someone I know well very well – it might even be a relation, of the sibling variety – has won a prize. It is officially a ‘big deal’ and I am cook-a-hoop on her behalf. M. is delighted, of course, but she’s far too modest and grounded to be anything approaching cock-a-hoop. It is for having written a rather brilliant PhD. I always knew she was brilliant. Now a few more people do. The grown-up, wise part of me, knows that prizes are not the be all and end all. Certainly, they have their place, but it is the taking part, and all that…. Still, there is nothing quite like public recognition; especially when it is a prize you don’t put yourself forward for, when it is a total surprise – which it was in this case. A well-placed and heartfelt declaration of: ‘what you did was quite brilliant’, and letting everyone know it, can carry one through a lifetime.
One of the hardest lessons we learn as children (and keep on learning as adults) is about not winning and how to deal with the disappointment when that happens. Is the answer to give up on competition? Ban it? Maybe so. I have the luxury of staying quiet on that debate, as I’ve no children to guide through the gloopy competition quagmire. But there is an argument that it’s almost impossible to get through life without winning or losing prizes – official or otherwise. You could maintain that we build resilience when we’re not placed. Nevertheless, even if I were firmly anti-competition, surely it would be churlish not to feel joy for M.? She phones me and whispers her news down the phone. I hang up thinking of the recent hoard of Nobel prizes that have been announced. Kazuo Ishiguro, winner of the prize for literature, is £832,000 richer. A little more than M.’s prize! I make a mental note to remind M. to accept her prize with the grace of Ishiguro rather than in the manner of Bob Dylan; who is reported to have muttered, ‘Oh Christ’, when told he’d won it last year. Not that I’d know, but when presented with the silver salver of triumph, it may well be tricky to find that gracious middle ground between enacting Conor McGregor victoriously whooping and air-punching, to the embarrassed nonchalant shrug, shutting the door, denying your own worth, shunning the accolade.
We are wired for celebration. Our better selves want to clap for winners, to be happy for others’ success. For years M. lived in Africa. She was there when they hosted the 2010 World Cup. Six African nations had qualified. Every other African nation supported the six who got through, but any time an opposing non-African team scored M. said the crowd would cheer just a loudly. They were celebrating good play, fine goals, sportsmanship, regardless of who was scoring and winning. It is a bewildering reaction in our culture, but it shouldn’t be. It’s much more fun to root for everybody.
Why do we wait for prizes to come out of the blue? After all, they so rarely do. Maybe it’s time to celebrate someone today by awarding them a prize: the best Thursday night dinner; best smile of the day; best cup of tea in bed. We all need recognition, and the vast majority of us are not ever going to get it in the public domain. So start today: praise someone, tell someone today how brilliant they are. As for nearly winning, make sure you celebrate the near-winners too, because what matters even more than winning a prize is telling someone that they are your winner.
‘The boy who nearly won the Texaco Art Competition’, by Joe Kane
he took a large sheet
of white paper and on this
he made the world an African world
of flat topped trees and dried grasses
and he painted an elephant in the middle
and a lion with a big mane and several giraffes
stood over the elephant and some small animals to fill
in the gaps he worked all day had a bath this was Saturday
on Sunday he put six jackals
in the world and a great big snake
and buzzards in the sky and tickbirds
on the elephants back he drew down blue
from the sky to make a river and got the elephants
legs all wet and smudged and one of the jackals got drowned
he put red flowers in the front of the picture and daffodils in the bottom corners
and his dog major chewing a bone and Mrs. Murphy’s two cats tom and jerry
and Milo the milkman with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth
and his merville dairy float pulled by his wonder horse Trigger
that would walk when he said click click and the holy family
in the top right corner with the donkey and cow
and sheep and baby Jesus and got the 40A bus
on Monday morning in to Abbey Street to hand
it in and the man on the door said
that’s a sure winner