Saturday, 4 February 2012

My name is Scott, and I'm a quizaholic

There’s nothing quite like a quiz evening for revealing the gaps in one’s general knowledge. Mine tend to be of the ”coach and horses” variety. I’m pretty damned impressive on anything that happened between 1955 and 1997, after which it all gets a bit hazy. That was the year I left TV News and gave up reading a stack of newspapers every day and began to avoid news and current affairs programmes altogether.

Popular music up to 1980 – no problem. Smatterings of sport (brilliant on tennis, of course). Classical music, okay. Poetry and politics, good. Literature, not bad (unless it’s along the lines of “in which Dickens novel did Theophilus Stinkypants, the lard-renderer make an appearance). Cinema – sorted, if it’s pre-1985, but if it involves questions about, say, Leonardo di Caprio or Angelina Jolie, I’m screwed. Science and geography – utterly, irredeemably hopeless, and then some (“What is the capital of Crapistan?” “Name the chain of islands which includes Wongadonga” etc). History, not that great (especially when it comes to British monarchs pre-Henry VII, let alone their bloody wives – once and for all, I have no idea who was married to Henry of Navarre. I don’t even have a clue who Henry of Navarre was. As for Popes…!). Religion, hazy.

Despite my myriad epistemic shortcomings I’ve become addicted to quizzes in recent years, partly because my wife loves them, and partly because it’s pleasing to discover one can finally answer more than one or two questions on University Challenge, glossing over the minor detail that one has had three and a half decades longer than most of the contestants to learn stuff. (And if the questions prove impossible to answer, I enjoys specualting on which of the students was most consistently beaten up behind the bike sheds at school - and which cocky little twerp should have been.) I particularly enjoyed the recent editions of the show featuring distinguished alumni from a variety of universities: there’s nothing quite like being able to answer a question which has stumped a panel consisting of a leading journalist, a bishop, an historian and a rocket scientist, even if it’s just “Name Mungo Jerry’s lead singer and main songwriter”).

Mastermind’s less satisfying. The general knowledge questions seem to have got a lot easier over the years, and most of the specialist subjects shouldn’t be allowed ("Our next contestant is Shane Spank, an unemployed rapist from Pinner, who has chosen to answer questions on the history of the techno-acid-hipbreak group, Barf Monkey: 2001-2002"). But I still watch it, only switching off when it’s wizened little prune of a presenter, John Humphreys, goes all patronising and oleaginously Welsh when a working-class contestant screws up.

Only Connect is undoubtedly the pick of the current crop. Waiting to see whether its saucy little minx of a brainy presenter, Victoria Coren, will be wearing something to highlight or de-emphasise her impressive poitrine and derrière lends it a certain piquancy (usually the former, I’m pleased to say). Of course, almost all the questions are unanswerable, requiring oodles of high-speed lateral thinking, which means that panels of, say, professional gamblers often do better than professional academics, which is pleasing, for some odd reason. Yes, it requires knowledge, but you have to go one stage further and do something with what you know. The most engaging part of the show – The Wall (which you can play online here) – where you have to find four groups of four related words on a board and explain why they’re related, has become annoying recently because of the increasing reliance on the names of characters from ancient TV sitcoms and children’s programmes – I mean, who cares?

I only realised how quiz-mad we’d become when our son bought us a quiz book for Christmas last year (David Gentle’s excellent On the Tip of My Tongue): when a teenage boy actually picks up on something like that, you know you’re truly out of the closet.

We’re off to our local church tonight for the annual quiz evening. We’ve managed to be on the runners-up table for the last two years (out of about 12 tables, each with eight people on them). But as we’ve never chosen the other people on the table, this has largely been a matter of luck (apart from the fact that it’s one area where my wife goes into super-competitive mode). Tonight, we’ve invited one of my wife’s sisters and her husband, both retired teachers (the ones whose house burned down last year). We’ve no idea who the others on the table are, but as the four of us are all either arty or literary, and all over 55, I’m hoping for some 35-year olds, at least one of whom will be a sports fanatic, and one of whom will be professional scientist who’s an expert on the films of Brad Pitt and the history of groups with names like Barf Monkey.

I’ll report back – unless, of course, we’re abjectly humiliated.


  1. I was going to advise you a month ago to back off. I saw her first.

    And now this:

    David Mitchell and Victoria Coren announce engagement

    My heart, she is broken.

  2. Actually, old boy, I first met the little sauce-boat when she appeared as a guest on a TV talk show I was running 17 year ago - when, to be honest, she was jolly cute but a trifle young for me. What she thinks she's doing marrying a ghastly smug lefty creep like David Mitchell, Lord knows.

  3. I meant to add that she was a very heavy smoker in those days - which I know would probably have put you off!

  4. It was very much the smoking that attracted me. And the successful poker-playing (European champion), which I used to watch with a bottle of wine late at night after American Gladiators and before falling asleep during the Australian Rules football. Happy days. And now the best gladiator has won.

  5. Sometimes Charles Dodgson can overdo it. My brain collapsed under the onslaught of logical contradictions he launched in his editorial today in the Observer.

    I took refuge in Victoria Coren's column and found this warning to all suitors in her list of female heroes:

    Isabella of France
    Everyone harps on about Elizabeth the First. But who remembers this 14th-century Queen of England, known as "the She-wolf of France", a nickname brilliant even by snooker players' standards? Shipped over to marry Edward II, she happily tolerated the king's gay love affairs, having him murdered only when he found a boyfriend she didn't like. Given that many women investigate the possibility of hired assassins as soon as they notice the way their husbands slurp soup, this was extremely easy-going. Isabella marshalled her own army to take the English throne as regent (on behalf of her son) and ruled rather well, improving relations with Scotland, which is more than the coalition can manage. When Edward III took power, he executed Isabella's lover, which makes her an icon for all mothers of children who don't show a damn bit of gratitude.