The latest challenge asked competitors to supply an imaginary testimonial for a high-profile figure that is superficially positive but contains hidden warnings to a potential employer.
This was an exercise in the artful deployment of ambiguity, as displayed in Robert J. Thornton’s L.I.A.R. The Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations, a handbook for those who, whether out of kindness or fear of litigation, wish the precise meaning of their ‘recommendations’ to remain opaque.
One-liners suggested by Professor Thornton include ‘In my opinion you will be very fortunate to get this person to work for you’, to describe a slacker, and ‘I most enthusiastically recommend this candidate with no qualifications whatsoever’, which is code for ‘this person is totally inept’. (One competitor confided that only after years of reading testimonials did he realise that ‘generally’ actually meant ‘not particularly’.)
A special mention goes to David Silverman, who gives every appearance of being a fan of Vladimir Putin’s ‘uniquely positive, assertive leadership style that no one who has worked for him would question’. The winners, in a smallish field, pocket £30 apiece.
Bill Greenwell (Oliver Cromwell)
I am happy to write in support of Oliver’s application to manage the England football team. He is a firm but fair disciplinarian, warts and all, who favours clean living and physical fitness, and sets store by an aggressive midfield. He will approach home internationals with a burning zeal, requiring teams to shoot first and ask questions later. He is no fan of the cavalier player, and will tell any player who puts on airs and graces to ‘use your head, chop-chop’. He likes a level playing field, but not the levellers. He has firm views on the staging of Sunday matches, and has a stock answer to those who address the subject. His policy on double substitution is from Matthew 24:40: Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. He also understands the supreme penalty: consider him keenly.
W.J. Webster (Al Capone)
Let me tell whoever it may concern that I consider Alphonse is a guy that is going to shoot to the top of his profession. Nobody that he has taken care of ever breathed a bad word about him and he is worth every cent he copped for looking after me. If it is up to me I will never let him go but I am not wishing to stand in his way. It sure was a lucky break that I gave him a hand up when he was just a kid making a name for himself in the protecting area. Clairvoyant I am not but I will stake heavy on him eventually going into business for himself and making enough potatoes to have the IRS more than somewhat interested. Mr Alphonse Capone is a guy with prospects.
Basil Ransome-Davies (Tony Blair)
There must be few people working in the Human Resources field who can match the wide and varied experience of Tony Blair. Indeed, his record is unique, from galvanising a moribund political party to destroying a dictatorial regime to working for peace in the Middle East, and he is no slouch in the property market. Versatile and charismatic, Mr Blair is, above all, a leader. When it comes to making crucial, life-and-death judgment calls, he has proved that he will not think twice: he will act fast, taking steps that impact decisively on perilous situations and will have profound, lasting repercussions. He is a man of steadfast purpose whom no amount of patient reasoning or passionate protest will sway from his chosen path. At the same time, he has a human and spiritual side, a man who without shame avows his religious faith and personal virility.
Adrian Fry (Charles Dickens)
Charles Dickens is a compendium of men any single one of whom I should heartily recommend. There is Dickens the journalist: invite him to edit your publication and he will write it whole, correspondence column and all. Dickens the comedian will mimic your merest speech impediment to a tee before long before you are fully acquainted. Dickens the reformer will tear himself to shreds, expertly identifying social ills by which he is too moved to suggest a solution. Dickens the dramaturge finds a ready ally in Dickens the paterfamilias; no Gad’s Hill Christmas is complete without theatrical entertainments in which no member of the family is deemed too young, old or reluctant to participate. Even Dickens the walker is indefatigable. Know the compendious whole and you’ll have nothing to lose but time to read Dickens the novelist who, residing quietly between hard covers, is really the best of them all.
Chris O’Carroll (Bill Cosby)
It is a pleasure to recommend Bill Cosby for any work in the entertainment field. As a solo performer, he has a genius for transfixing an audience and having his way with them. Nobody knows what secret ingredient makes him irresistible to his fans, who often describe themselves as ‘limp’ and ‘helpless’ when he’s done.
Furthermore, whenever Mr Cosby is part of an ensemble effort, he makes a memorable impact on young performers and other protégées to whom he generously devotes time and attention. Many people whose lives he has touched over the years testify that they are much wiser in the ways of the show business world thanks to his experienced guidance and input. As one aspiring actress exclaimed, ‘When he invites you to his home or his dressing room for a drink and an intimate conversation about your career, you know he’s taking a sincere personal interest.’
When the novelist Ian McEwan helped his son to write an essay about one of his books (Enduring Love), the teacher gave it a somewhat lukewarm ‘C+’. Your next challenge is to submit a school essay written by a well-known author, living or dead, about one of their works. (please specify). Email entries of up to 150 words to email@example.com by midday on 23 May.t