AT THE start of the century, it was simple. There were only two awards known to man. One was the cup for the school games sack race. The other was the Nobel Prize. Miss out on the former, you'd have to hold out for the latter. Very few attempted it the other way around.
Come the end of the century, you can't get away from awards. Stand still for a minute in the street and panels of judges will forcibly clamp a rosette to your lapel. You may come home as a Blue Ribbon chef or Young Musician of the Year. Nor can you escape awards ceremonies. Even now, deep in a Himalayan cave, some luckless hermit is laundering his loincloth and affixing a bow tie to his fifteen-foot beard, as he prepares to receive the Mister Unworldly bouquet and sash.
If you can do it, you can win a prize for it. And looking at some of the nominees for next week's Brit Awards, it seems that even if you can't do it, you're still in with a fighting chance. Should you happen to watch the Brits - if you're trapped under something heavy, say, and it's either that or chew off your own foot - then you can at least take comfort in the relatively small number of categories. At the American equivalent, the nominations keep on coming. An act which doesn't take home a Grammy for Record Of The Year may yet get a crack at Song Of The Year, Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal (not to be confused with Best Pop Vocal Performance), Best Alternative Music Performance or, at a pinch, Best Engineered Album (Non-Classical). At any moment, you suspect, you might hear your own name read out.
HOST: “And the Most Stupefied Overseas Viewer is. . . Dave! Dave can't be with us tonight because he's trapped under something heavy, so here to accept this award on his behalf is Puff Daddy.”
PUFF DADDY: “Jus' keepin' it real. Peace. You got any more of these for me to collect? I'm parked on a meter.”
By their nature, awards and prizes are supposed to encourage competition and excellence. Generally, they do the opposite. The only real competition takes place between different awards ceremonies. And if you think awards for those are far off, you're more of an optimist than I am. Perhaps you deserve an award.
The Pulitzer committee may withhold a prize if the standard of entries is too poor. But most awards bodies work along the same lines as drippy Seventies teachers. Everyone gets a
gold star no matter what. For the mute, mucus-ridden child at the back who was praised for eating his exercise book, substitute the International Bluegrass-Salsa Crossover Newcomer of the Year. This principle also applies to the Honours list. Once, to earn a gong, you had to colonise India. Nowadays, Services to Shelf Stacking will do the trick.
Actors and musicians often say that what matters most to them is the esteem of their fans. This is drivel. After a certain amount of success, all celebrities take their fans for granted. What they now desire is recognition from their own. Being insecure to the point of derangement, they are desperately susceptible to flattery. Which is why an organisation that depends on them - such as music channel VH1 or rock mag NME - can ensure a year's worth of co-operation by presenting them with a formica gimcrack slathered in cheap gold paint.
Many artists protest that such prizes are meaningless, self-serving tokens. And so they are, until you get one yourself. These individuals may bad-mouth the whole affair, but they still turn up. And come morning they'll still be clinging to their little statuette , gazing at it, eyes wet with love. “They like me. They really, really like me. I'm the king of the world!” Curiously, Woody Allen, who has fashioned a career from frailty and neurosis, is the only major film personality to routinely and without fuss ignore the Oscars - which gives you a hint of where his true character might lie.
Outside of showbusiness, folk working in less glamorous fields have very sensibly decided to give themselves awards too. You may not have caught the Society For Biomaterials' annual jamboree on the telly. The US Navy's Ship Naming Contest was inexplicably bumped from the front pages this year. And it's just possible that you cannot recall a single recipient of a “Fifi” from The Fragrance Foundation. But these are all genuine prize-giving galas.
Whether it's Employee of the Week at Burger Cabin or Knight Commander of The British Empire, people love getting an award. Any award. Stuffed in a drawer somewhere I have a certificate proclaiming me Best Junior Dog Handler at the Nairobi Kennel Club Show, 1981. I have no idea how to handle a dog other than scratching between its ears and affirming it's a good boy. But that's the only award I've ever won and the only one I'm ever likely to. It proves that somebody else once thought I was good at something, however pointless. I wouldn't trade that for all the Brits in the world. That's just a turn of phrase, of course. If anyone wants to cut a deal, I'll be round the service entrance, 10pm sharp, by the bins.