Posted in Culture

That is the Question


For years, I was unpersuaded by the pub quiz. To me, a self-appointed Young Clever Person, they were dull: entertainment of the boring, by the boring, for the boring; orgies of quasi-intellectualised nonsense meant to bilk barflies and poseurs out of their loose change. What was trivia, after all, if not trivial? Even when asked nicely, I would no more think of taking part in a pub quiz than I would a bring & buy sale, or a fully costumed re-enactment of the Battle of Nantwich. They weren’t my cup of tequila. At all.

Then something changed. What changed was this: I competed in a pub quiz. Previously, I had only ever been a bystander, a non-combatant caught in the quizmaster’s crossfire. Which could be annoying, especially if you were mid-conversation. So, blindsided by yet another pub quiz and another mic’d-up quizmaster, we decided, my pals and I, to abandon the habit of our lifetimes. We produced our £2s and quizzed. For the first time, I found myself answering pub-quiz questions in anger.

And we won. Quite handily, as it turned out. It was a victory that changed everything. Winning was like taking a big hit of some delicious drug. That day, I left home a sceptic and returned a fanatic. What was boring was suddenly fascinating. I had been bitten on the brain by the pub-quiz bug. And to think we had won so easily without practice or revision or training. Imagine what was possible if one of us actually knew something! Feeling for the first time the full scale of my ignorance, I proceeded to nourish myself on the tree of knowledge. I visited libraries, I watched Eggheads, I ate superfoods with brain-boosting properties.

Because, despite my glowing example, one can’t simply rock up at a pub quiz and expect to prosper. If you have designs on winning, you need a certain amount of smarts. You must become a lifelong learner. Use me as a cautionary example. I’ve seen the innards of books, my brain circuits are honed by strategic turn-based video games (Civilization 4, Championship Manager 01/02) and I possess a fund of information on hamsters, tennis history and miserabilist ‘80s indie pop. But for all that, I remain a makeweight. The simplest questions still stump me (‘Name one dog’) and my best guesses can be criminally off base.

But this is where one’s fellow quizzers earn their keep. Getting a winning team together can be more art than science, but largely, the smarter your compadres, the better their chances of plugging the gaping holes in your knowledge. The presiding genius on my team is not me – far, far from it – but a certain R. Learned across the arts and sciences, R probably has a full 50 IQ points on the rest of us put together. No question ever gets the better of his colossal intellect, no lateral-thinking puzzle ever defeats his miraculous powers of deduction. Well, very occasionally R might err, but for an amateur quizzer, he’s got a hell of a lot of game (which is just as well: I’m halfway to being a halfwit).

It was at full strength (i.e. with R with us) recently that we assembled at The Grapes, in Limehouse, for its Monday quiz. The Grapes, for the uninitiated, is a pub of great antiquity owned by someone of similar vintage: Sir Ian McKellan. Even in London, you don’t see its like very often. Tall, narrow and nibbled by the River Thames, it totters under the weight of its centuries-old history. And the pub’s ancientness and advantageous location bring it distinguished custom on quiz night. Being a slip of a place, there are only a few tables, but on them are collectively gathered what is pleased to think itself the chief intelligentsia of Limehouse society. Clearly, we were going to have our hands full.

To the quiz proper. The opening questions were so pants-poopingly easy the answers wrote themselves (though not without the odd stumble over spelling: is ‘a capella’ one word or two?). Inevitably, the difficulty curve soon ramped up, but we were equal to it. As usual, R was in full flight, and for once, T had troubled to bring his A-game too. Both M and C pitched in plentifully when opportunity offered. Me? I was saving myself for the music round. And how it paid off, when, quick as a flash, I recognised the jingly opening bars of Four Non Blondes – ‘What’s Up’. It’s one of those annoying songs, you see, that you know but don’t know.

Flushed with that triumph, I tackled the anagram, which had soundly defeated all comers. How unfathomable could a few scrambled letters be? Very, as it turned out. I furrowed both brows, I gave the thing the cream of the Emmerson brain, but nothing would unriddle it. And I had about as much luck with the questions in the second half. Some were so stupid-bonkers difficult that I had to fight the instinct to weep on the spot. And for a fiendish few, even the collective efforts of R and a zoning T drew a blank. Still, we performed creditably. Whether it would be enough to triumph in the pub-quiz snake pit that is The Grapes was another question. We waited, in an agony of anticipation.

Not being one to leave the reader on tenterhooks, I’ll tell you: we won. By one whole point. It was an away victory! In hostile territory! (everyone there was really friendly, but still). My heart was singing. I was brimming over with pride. Do you see what I’m getting at now? Only in a pub quiz are such feelings of jubilation possible! Pub quizzes: they tickle every brain cell of your being. So come and quiz, all ye with hungry minds and thirsty bellies! If anyone should ask for me, I shall be in the Grapes, prepping fiercely for the defence of our title. Address letters care of Sir Ian McKellan.


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