A breathless hush settled over the basement, as the assembled throng took last gulps of white wine, rehearsed speeches in their heads (not that they thought they were going to win, but just in case, just in case), or gripped the back of the chair in front so tightly their knuckles popped. The envelopes were being brought out; the slips inside spelt fame and fortune for a select few, a one-way travelcard to Disappointment, NW1 for the rest. The compere, a holographic projection of Dylan Thomas voiced by TV’s Tom Hollander, made his way glitchily to the podium, where the first of the envelopes sprung from the box and bobbed somewhere in the vicinity of his hand. The LRB Bookshop Poetry Picks of the Year Awards 2014 had begun.
The first award was for Best Book Sort Of About Poetry, in a Broad Sense. This went to Chris McCabe’s superb In The Catacombs: A Summer Among the Dead Poets of West Norwood, a psychogeographical exploration of West Norwood cemetery and its buried poets; a sustained meditation on the vagaries of reception and literary history.
Next up was the award for Best Bringing-to-Light, which went without much competition to Bloodaxe’s long-awaited collection of Rosemary Tonks, Bedouin of the London Evening. Tonks’ disappearance and rediscovery is an astonishing story, and the quality of the poems speak for themselves; samizdat versions of her poems have been circulating among the poetry scene for a while, and it’s a joy to see them finding the large audience they deserve.
Tom Hollander’s Dylan Thomas impression had been convincing so far, but as he prepared to announce the next award – for Best First Collection – it all started to break down. He began coughing uncontrollably; the puppetmaster jiggled the envelope in sympathy, which convinced no-one. In the confusion, his notes were mislaid, and nobody could remember whether the award had been meant to go to Helen Tookey’s Missel Child or Vidyan Ravinthran’s Grun-tu-Molani. ‘Er, they were both very good, in any case’, said Hollander, now thoroughly out of character. ‘Tookey’s poems are short, intense, fragmentary, revelatory, often taking their bearings from German modernism. Ravinthran is more expansive and discursive, with a Larkin-esque thingy for the precise word, and a subtle, supple sense of humour. They should both win! Now onto the next award.’
The next award turned out to be for Best Pamphlet. No confusion this time; Peter Riley’s superb The Ascent of Kinder Scout was the winner by a mile. Riley once described Roger Langley’s work as ‘a poetry in favour of the world’; the same phrase could be applied to him, in spades. Hints that this is the first sequence of a book in preparation, provisionally titled North, make us thoroughly excited.
Next came Best Critical Volume. Hollander had successfully bluffed through both previous categories, but here he was at a complete loss. The hologram’s lips went on moving without him; control of the microphone was passed to one of the organisers of the awards ceremony, who awarded the prize to Thrills and Frills, the posthumous selection of Andrew Crozier’s criticism. ‘Sullen, snarly, invigorating’ was the verdict from behind the curtain. The runner-up prize was awarded to Peter McCarey’s Find an Angel and Pick a Fight: contrary, generous, intermittently barmy, always readable.
At this point, memories of the evening become hazy. Tom Hollander, now relegated to a technical support role, discovered that by flicking the projector he could make the Dylan Thomas hologram jump up and down. Meanwhile behind the curtain, a bottle of whisky had been broached to celebrate ‘reaching the home stretch’. Best Collection went to Miriam Gamble’s fiery Pirate Music; Paul Batchelor’s The Love Darg would have been thoroughly in contention if the judges had been able to make up their minds whether it was a pamphlet or a book. Best Collected Poems went to Christopher Middleton’s luminous and voluminous Collected Later Poems.
The audience was beginning to file out, having had more than enough of this fractious, ructious, adjective-crammed ceremony, so only a few heard the rapid-fire final awards: the Best Book Which Had Fallen Down Behind the Shelves and Which We Found in the Stocktake, which went to a dusty copy of Stephen Knight’s wonderful The Prince of Wails (2012), the Mr Kipling Award for Excellence in Cakes, which went to that reliable old standby coffee and walnut, and the Bookseller's Choice Award for Complete Lack of Barcodes and Best-Concealed ISBNs which went once again to Test Centre. It always goes to Test Centre.