Fifteen competitors braved what must be Shrewsbury’s most eclectic and eccentric prize competition. Although originally intended as a short talk on one of the 1500 or so Kek ‘spells’, known to all Salopians of a pre-1976 vintage and very much alive in English third form Set 3, the competition has gradually become more and more freestyle, with an ill-defined set of rules perfectly clear to the competitors, if sometimes obscure to the audience – rather like the rules of ‘Mornington Crescent’, in fact. Non-negotiables are a text on which the talk is based, intellectual coherence, a maximum talk time of four minutes – liberally interpreted – and above all, interest.
This year the subject and text range was broader than ever, spanning Blake’s Auguries of Innocence, Eliot’s The Waste Land, Jeeves and Wooster, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, Buddhist resonances in the film Fight Club, the lyrics of an obscure rock song ‘Worm in the Soul’ (a restatement, so it was argued, of Nietsche’s ‘We must have chaos within us to give birth to a dancing star’, the spell inscribed on the bas-relief of McEachran in the School Bs).
The boys, and one brave girl, Alice Leslie, were pretty disciplined about timings and to a man (and woman) interesting, making the job of the judge, Ruth Padel, author, poet and great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin, peculiarly difficult. In an astonishing adjudication during which the judge decisively and with a few assured brush strokes brought out the virtues of each of the fifteen talks, six winners emerged.
In the Junior Section, first prize went to Sonny Koh (Ch) for his talk on Frost’s The Road Less Travelled, second to Tiger Vechamamontien (M) for his (almost) convincing attempt to sing the Buddhist virtues of the film Fight Club, with Michael Schutzer-Weissmann (PH), youngest of that extraordinary clan, commended for an engaging and witty talk on P G Wodehouse.
In the senior section Sam Ansloos (G) carried off the first prize for a theatrically executed but thoughtful meditation on the relationship between the actor and his text with reference to Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Second prize went to Mark Huang (S) for a mesmerising analysis of the opening of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, delivered as though he were himself in the High Court of Chancery in Jarndyce v Jarndyce. Commended was Rory Fraser (Ch) for a characteristically witty and urbane meditation on a pool of light glimpsed on another candidate’s desk during a GCSE exam, his inspiration a passage from Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast.
The spirit of Kek is most definitely alive and well at Shrewsbury.