July 18, 1997

Wordsworth and Shelley could not support reality.

And they're not the only ones. Their 20th-century disciples ensured that 1997 produced the richest crop of examination howlers in years.

Perhaps our times reflect those described by one student examined by Nottingham Trent political scientist David Baker: The period was one full of doubt and uncertainty, because nobody was ahead of their time.

But this year's examinees managed certainty even when strikingly wrong. Judie Newman of Newcastle, recipient of the insight into the neuroses of romantic poets, also had the pleasure of reading about Madrid, then the centre of the Roman Empire.

Another of Dr Newman's charges, revealing that Quackers aided escaping slaves, was one of many to offer fresh insights on religion.

Richard Rastall of Leeds was delighted to learn of the biblical loans system (The high priest rents his clothes) while Jenny Smith, elsewhere in the same university, reports one candidate's end-of-tether conclusion that Most of the prophets were certifiably insane and full of gobbledegook.

The great thinkers were revised ruthlessly. One of Trevor Saunders's endlessly inventive Newcastle classicists reported Plato's worry that if the state failed to use the talents of its women to the full it would lose half its manpower. Whether this owed anything to the Heroine abuse perceived by one of Peter Barnes's even more consistently imaginative Open University education students is unclear.

Still, there were fresh insights into Seneca, a hypochondriac millionaire according to a Newcastle classicist; Freud, credited with believing that children are born not knowing what sex they are; Chomsky, who would describe himself as a naturist, and Skinner, responsible for the theory of opulent conditioning.

Thanks to Dr Barnes for the last three.

This year's prize for irrefutable logic goes to the student who informed Dr Newman that the play begins with the first act, sadly without adding whether it was the opera comique (or buffet opera) seen by one of Dr Rastall's examinees.

At the other end of the logical spectrum comes the Trent politics student who argued that football hooliganism was closely linked to the National Front (even in cases where it wasn't).

Oscar Wilde, who could "resist everything except temptation" would have admired the self-control of the Canadian anthropology student who, offered the word "Ziggurat", responded Nein, danke. I'm trying to give them up (Thank you Richard Lello of Worcester CHE).

David Finkelstein of Napier University teaches a module on modernism. One of his charges has concluded that modernism attempted to subject the mind to a new kind of stress.

And with some success, clearly.

Others noted the impact of alcohol on Manet's painting technique - it was only pint on canvas - and a previously unsuspected aspect of Picasso's career when he was part of the avon guarde of Modernist art.

Blue rinse period, perhaps?

This was almost as arresting as the belief of one of Dr Newman's students that Coleridge wrote "The Ancient Mariner" while submerged with his wife at Nether Stowey or the suggestion, conjured by a Trent politics student, that Wilson rose up with his ear to the ground.

In an extraordinary fertile year the top seven chosen by the THES panel, professional howlermeisters all, came from seven different people.

Some of the best howlers contain a deeper, unintended truth. Witness a Nene student's statement that New roads are built to help relive congestion, sent in by Jeffrey Best.

Panellists with children were particularly likely to agree with one of Dr Barnes's students that Adolescence is the transgression from childhood to adulthood, which shared fifth place.

Also fifth was another of Jenny Smith's Leeds theologians, mysteriously compelled to apologise for the bloodstains on this paper.

Something to do perhaps with the alarming problem noted by yet another of Judie Newman's lateral thinkers: cannibalism throws up many questions, winning her third place.

That related to a story by Herman Melville.

Fourth is J. P. Wieczorek of Reading University with an image which only sounds as though it comes from Melville: His mother went whaling with outstretched arms .

Brevity tends to be the mark of a good howler. But there are exceptions, and second place goes to a real epic penned by one of Dr Rastall's examinees in honour of a Monteverdi opera.

For the full effect, try reading in a Radio Three accent.

Pompeia is about the Emperor of Rome; Nearo having an affair with a woman called Pompeia who is a bit of a social climber. Pompeia thinks she can become empress, but unfortunately Nearo is married to Euridici. But to Nearo, Pompeia is just a bit on the side so he doesn't really care that when Nearo is leaving Pompeia she tells Nearo to leave his wife because she wants to be Empress, but of course Nearo has no intention of leaving his wife, so before Nearo leaves Pompeia she begs him to come back.

But while it's good to know where the next generation of Classic FM presenters will come from, this offering had to give way to the 1997 Howler of the Year, furnished by another of Dr Finkelstein's stressed modernists: After five years she returned Hardy's ring, which hit him very hard.

Mild concussion to Hardy, a bottle of Chateau Antithesis to Dr Finkelstein and thanks to everyone who sent in an entry.

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