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Published 30 November 2005

"I love awfully bad writing" (2005), by James Clarke

I love awfully bad writing. Indeed I can say (with all due modesty) that I am quite good at it myself. This might explain why I am fascinated by the annual Bulwyer-Lytton Fiction Contest for the worst opening to a novel.

Every year since 1984 San Jose State University has been offering generous prizes to those who compose the worst introductory paragraphs to imagined novels.

This year marks the 21st year of the contest which was inspired by Edward George Bulwyer-Lytton’s awful opening paragraph in his novel Paul Clifford (1830):

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents – except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness”.

Bulwyer-Lytton doesn’t really deserve his notoriety. After all, he is the novelist who coined the phrase “The pen is mightier than the sword”.

This year’s winner, editor Ralph Berg, came up with:

“As he stared at her ample bosom, he daydreamed of the dual Bromberg carburettors in his vintage Triumph Spitfire, highly functional yet pleasingly formed, perched prominently on top of the intake manifold, aching for experienced hands, the small knurled caps of the oil dampeners begging to be inspected and adjusted as described in chapter seven of the shop manual”.

The contest attracts thousands of entries from around the world.

My favourite awful writer is William McGonagall, a Scots handloom weaver from Dundee, who began writing deplorable verse in 1877 and enjoyed a 25-year-long literary notoriety until death mercifully carried him off. A typical example of his verse is titled “Glasgow”. It ends:

“And, without fear of contradiction, I will venture to say
You are the second grandest city in Scotland at the present day!”

He became equally painful in a poem titled "Greenland":

“Greenland’s icy mountains are fascinating and grand
And wondrously created by the Almighty’s command;
And the works of the Almighty there’s few can understand:
Who knows but it might be part of Fairyland?”

Unfortunately it goes on – and on and I can’t resist giving you four more lines:

“The icy mountains they’re higher than a brig’s topmast
And the stranger in amazement stands aghast
As he beholds the water flowing off the melted ice
And down the mountain side that he cries out, Oh! how nice!”

His most notorious work was a long, rather judgemental poem describing the River Tay Bridge disaster of December 28 1879 when a bridge collapsed as a passenger train passed over it on a dark and stormy night in Scotland: "Nobody survived".
Here are some random extracts:

“So the train sped on with all its might,
And Bonnie Dundee soon hove in sight,
And the passengers’ hearts felt light,
Thinking they would enjoy themselves on the New Year;
With their friends at home they lov’d most dear,
And wish them all a happy New Year
Until it was about midway,
Then the central girders with a crash gave way,
And down went the train and passengers into the Tay!
...
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed”.