Spectator competition winners: If Alan Bennett had been a spy

7 May 2022

9:00 AM

7 May 2022

9:00 AM

In Competition No. 3247, you were asked to submit the reflections of a well-known writer on a career path they might have taken.

Most famous writers have had day jobs – Kurt Vonnegut sold Saabs, Harper Lee worked as an airline ticket agent, and Joseph Heller was a blacksmith’s apprentice.

But what about those missed vocations? Take a bow, Robert Frost, map-maker; Emily Dickinson, undertaker; Raymond Chandler, shrink. The winners earn £25.

I think I could have been a model censor of obscenity
Admonishing the naughty and not ever granting lenity
To crudity or nudity or any kind of rudery,
Far bossier than Bowdler in my monumental prudery.
How drastically I’d prune the books that might disturb or vex you all
By dabbling in language that’s suggestive of the sexual,
For such things could disturb you and you might well find it troubling
If wickedness were hinted and entendres started doubling.

Then should I maybe exercise the censor’s own prerogative
Of pondering naughty pictures with a gaze that’s interrogative,
And if I kept a few that were delectably collectable,
Well, who’d impugn the motives of a censor so respectable?
George Simmers/W.S. Gilbert

I think that I shall never write
Some poetry that is not trite.
I aim for depth, but what I get
Is often barely worth the sweat.
I have personified a tree,
To wide approval. Lucky me.
Yet might this versifying hack
Have been a virile lumberjack?
My avocation is to be
In profitable industry,
In heavy work with firs and pines,
Not dribbling out the rhyming lines.
I’d follow in Paul Bunyan’s tracks,
Wielding the chainsaw and the axe.
Poems are made by wimps like me,
But lumberjacks can fell a tree.
Basil Ransome-Davies/Joyce Kilmer

Mam pooh-poohed the idea, adamant eavesdroppers never heard good of themselves, but I always hankered after a career in espionage. Had she known I intended to spy for the Soviets, there’d have been a to-do. Naturally reticent, I simply waited to be contacted, signalling readiness by sitting in tea rooms looking pensive. I wonder now whether I didn’t miss my cue during a chance encounter with a man named Sergei in a Halifax Khardoma. It wasn’t the world of international travel and poison-tipped brollies that appealed so much as the prospect of swapping codified quotations from the Pylon poets with others who didn’t fit in. Hopeless at tradecraft – even now, I can’t video Songs of Praise for recording snooker – I nevertheless feel that, in Russian hands, my intelligence on goings on in Gloucester Crescent could, if not bring down, at least momentarily nonplus the British establishment.
Adrian Fry/Alan Bennett

Vet, six feet two tall, brilliant
Vet in all ways, blood tempering the mud.
Dab hand from the Calder: hawk of eye, cold.
Lugging greased lambs from the arse end.

Or mooching in, all gas and gumption,
Into the parlour, into the long barn,
Mardy as owt but never a skriker.
Medicine man in an old green Barbour –

Myth in my wrists. Fettling the mare,
Or the farmer’s wife, Monday mornings,
All in these gumboots, flat cap balanced
On my rich head of moorland hair.

Surgeon to the tribe, bold as the rat
Whiskering shadows by a concrete silo.
Craggy of cheek, motoring up ancient lanes.
Or else Abattoir Manager, Halifax.
Bill Greenwell/Ted Hughes

To glove, or not to glove? That was the question.
Would it be nobler with soft kid to cover
Your thumbs and fingers in the mould of fashion,
Or write with needle’s hand a whole world’s passion?
Had I continued with my father’s life
The glove that Troilus threw at death himself,
The gloves that Portia wore for her love’s sake,
The bloody gloves King Hal and Williams trade
At Agincourt, had known my paring knife.
When Romeo in darkling orchard says,
‘O that I were a glove upon that hand!’
It had been mine, and with bare bodkin sewn.
Gloves’ labours lost, I laboured long on love.
Though every man has business and desire,
I chose desire instead of business leather
And seized in unglov’d hand the sharpen’d feather.
Nick MacKinnon/Shakespeare

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a community possessed of various conditions is in want of a good grocer and at one time my hopes inclined towards that vocation. One half of the world cannot understand the minute pleasures of portioning and weighing but to me this was happiness. Not for the business of money-making did I endeavour to find reason to justify my hopes but for the close ties of local connection. No family can survive long without its allocation of flour or sugar or the small exchanges of private communication that cross the counter. It was always incomprehensible that anyone might wish for another life than the love of comestibles and how they reflect the private circumstances of each man and woman. More than being married, grocery offered an infinity of entertainment. Had my life taken that direction I believe I should have been most content.
D.A Prince/Jane Austen

No. 3250: On the money

You are invited to submit a sonnet to Mammon. Please email entries to by midday on 25 May.

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