The prize is awarded for a talk on a 'spell', a spell being a Salopian term for a short passage of poetry or prose, chosen for its suitability for recitation aloud. The word was used to describe passages that McEachran encouraged his boys to read aloud, often in chorus. The playwright Alan Bennett has said that McEachran, about whose eccentric teaching methods he had been told by his friend the late Paul Foot, provided the intellectual model for Hector in his play The History Boys.
A record entry of 16 Upper School and 10 Lower School hopefuls for this increasingly popular competition prompted a last minute decision to split the occasion, with recently retired senior master Peter Fanning (currently teaching at Magdalen College School, Oxford) given the invidious job of judging the seniors, and Dr Michael Morrogh from our own History department, the juniors.
The stringent time limits imposed this year - 4 minutes to include both the ‘Spell’ and the ensuing talk were, astonishingly, rigidly observed by the competitors and talks covered a wider range than ever before, from a personal and completely engaging analysis of William Blake’s The Sick Rose, via Sartre, Orwell, Huysmans, Eminem, Tolkien, Martin Buber, Pope, Shakespeare’s Richard II, King Lear and Julius Caesar, Antony Burgess, the final verse of hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind (a moving talk with a valedictory feel by Head of School Rory Fraser), Nabokov, Waugh, Hart Crane and others.
What gives this competition its unique flavour is the eclectic nature of the pupils’ selections, most of them unrelated to texts they are being taught in the classroom, and the enthusiasm and passion with which they communicate their ideas. This is independent thinking at its best. Like the game ‘Mornington Crescent’ in Radio 4’s I’m sorry I haven’t a Clue, there are no published rules, other than a time limit, but the competitors seem instinctively to know them nevertheless. Typical of ‘Kek’ himself, really.
This year’s prizes were awarded, in the senior section, to Jessica Walker (EDH LVI), who had chosen as her ‘spell’ the Orwellian idea of 2+2=5 and linked it to X factor-type cultural engineering, and in the junior section, Tiger Vechamamontien (M V), after a mesmerising talk on the film Pleasantville and his contention that all utopias are in fact inherently dystopic.