The first know-all

It has been the year of Lady Gaga, papal visits and a psychic octopus. Have you been keeping up with


1 Which Labour MP was stripped of his Oldham East and Saddleworth seat by an election court for making false statements about his Lib Dem opponent?
a Bob Ainsworth
b Elliot Morley
c Phil Woolas
d Liam Byrne

2 The Foreign Office issued a public apology after an official memo suggested Britain should mark the Pope's visit by launching a Benedict-branded range of which items?
a Condoms
b Chocolates
c Beer mugs
d Crucifixes

3 Saying she wanted to get rid of "skeletons" from her past before standing as a Labour councillor in Pimlico, Sally Bercow admitted she was which of the following in her twenties?
a "a bit of a goer"
b "slightly bisexual"
c "a fan of the marijuana"
d "a binge drinker"

4 Which Labour MP was secretly filmed likening himself to a “cab for hire" when lobbying former cabinet colleagues on behalf of business?
a Geoff Hoon
b Stephen Byers
c Jack McConnell
d Charles Clarke

5 Complete Labour MP Austin Mitchell's quote about the coalition government: "It's like marrying the Parachute Regiment with a Brownie pack -"
a "a disaster waiting to happen"
b "so mad it might just work"
c "bound to be messy"
d "wait, what's a Brownie pack?"

6 Ed Miliband beat his brother, David, by how many percentage points to become Labour leader?
a 0.8
b 1.3
c 2.6
d 3.1

7 David Laws resigned as Chief Secretary to the Treasury after spending how many days in the post?
a 11
b 17
c 24
d 29

8 Called "a bigoted woman" by Gordon Brown, Gillian Duffy was a lifelong supporter of which party?
a Liberal Democrats
b Conservatives
c Labour

9 How did Ed Miliband describe his nickname "Red Ed" in a BBC interview in September?
a "tiresome rubbish"
b "banal and boring"
c "at least it rhymes"
d "makes me sound too angry"

10 George Osborne was reminded of an article he wrote for the Times in 2006 extolling which nation as "a shining example of the art of the possible in long-term economic policymaking"?
a Iceland
b China
c Ireland
d Greece

International affairs

1 What did Naomi Campbell call "a big inconvenience for me"?
a Turning 40 in May
b Organising "Fashion for Relief Haiti"
c Testifying at the Sierra Leone war crimes tribunal
d Dealing with allegations about slapping her chauffeur

2 Which foreign ruler was revealed as owning more of London than the Queen?
a Sultan of Brunei
b Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai
c King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia
d Emir of Qatar

3 Who ousted Bill Gates as the world's richest man in the 2010 Forbes Rich List?
a Lakshmi Mittal
b Lawrence Ellison
c Carlos Slim Helú
d Warren Buffett

4 Which senatorial hopeful for Delaware broadcast a campaign advert that told voters she wasn't a witch?
a Carly Fiorina
b Christine O'Donnell
c Sharron Angle
d Lisa Murkowski

5 In his memoir Decision Points, what did George W Bush claim was his worst moment in his eight years as US president?
a Seeing the first photos of US servicemen's coffins return from Iraq
b Realising how premature his "mission accomplished" speech was
c Hearing of the 9/11 attacks while in a school classroom
d Kanye West saying: "George Bush doesn't care about black people"

6 In October, the Chilean miners were rescued after how many days trapped underground?
a 44
b 53
c 69
d 82

7 The American comedian Jon Stewart held a "Rally to Restore" what?
a Sanity
b Peace
c Liberal Anger
d Dignity

8 During a February Q&A with activists, what did the notes on Sarah Palin's hand say?
a "energy, budget cuts, lift American spirits"
b "drill, baby, drill and drill again"
c "Blame Obama, Blame Obama, Blame Obama"
d "Tea Party good, Washington bad"

9 Who built a bacterial genome that constituted the creation of synthetic life for the first time?
a Craig Venter
b Sidney Altman
c Joseph G Gall
d George Schaller

10 In July, which country's lower house passed a bill, by 335 votes to one, banning Muslim women from wearing the full veil in public?
a Netherlands
b France
c Italy
d Sweden

Home affairs

1 Which celebrity chef sacked his father-in-law, Chris Hutcheson, from his job as chief executive of his restaurant empire?
a Jamie Oliver
b Marco Pierre White
c Gordon Ramsay
d Heston Blumenthal

2 Who or what are believed to be involved in 74,000 UK road accidents every year?
a Wild deer
b Cyclists
c Potholes
d Drivers using mobiles

3 In April, the science writer Simon Singh won the right to rely on the defence of fair comment in a libel case brought by which body?
a British Osteopathic Association
b British Homeopathic Association
c British Naturopathic Association
d British Chiropractic Association

4 Which university has accredited a foundation degree with fast-food giant McDonald's?
a London South Bank
b Liverpool John Moores
c Manchester Metropolitan
d Nottingham Trent

5 What was the name of the cat that Mary Bale was filmed dropping in a wheelie bin?
a Lola
b Mina
c Charly
d Holly


1 What did the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg say was the only thing that the makers of The Social Network got right about his portrayal in the film?
a His student wardrobe
b His good looks
c His business acumen
d His friendship skills

2 Claiming he did it in jest, Paul Chambers was convicted of sending menacing electronic communication after tweeting: "You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!" Which airport?

a Robin Hood, Doncaster
b Birmingham
c Stansted
d Luton

3 The Minneapolis IT workers Pete and Alisha Arnold set up a website inviting the public to vote on what?
a Whether they should have an open relationship
b Whether they should convert to Islam
c Whether they should emigrate to Canada
d Whether Alisha should have an abortion

4 Which country did voters in a poll suggest teenage pop star Justin Bieber should tour next?
a Iraq
b North Korea
c Afghanistan
d Somalia

5 Threatening to leave Twitter yet again, who tweeted: "So some f**king paper misquotes a humorous interview I gave, which itself misquoted and now I'm the Antichrist. I give up", adding later, "Bye bye"?
a Ashton Kutcher
b Jonathan Ross
c Stephen Fry
d Jimmy Carr


1 What was the British Museum's 100th and final exhibit in the BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects?
a A credit card
b A stone-chopping tool from Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge
c The Rosetta Stone
d A solar-powered lamp and charger

2 Which band took "strong insult" at the US Air Force Reserve using a re-recording of their song "Fell in Love with a Girl" in a Super Bowl ad
because it encouraged recruitment for a war "we do not support"?
a Kings of Leon
b My Chemical Romance
c The White Stripes
d The Strokes

3 In February, a bronze sculpture by which artist became the most expensive piece of art to sell at auction after it was bought for more than £65m?
a Alberto Giacometti
b David Smith
c Henry Moore
d Constantin Brancusi

4 Two previously unknown violin sonatas by which Italian composer were uncovered after 270 years?
a Antonio Vivaldi
b Giuseppe Tartini
c Niccolò Paganini
d Giovanni Battista Pergolesi

5 Lady Gaga wore a dress made out of which material to the MTV Video Music Awards in September?
a Bubblewrap
b Glass
c Gold leaf
d Raw meat


1 The X Factor contestant Gamu Nhengu claimed that she feared being killed by firing squad if she was deported back to which country?
a Sudan
b Zimbabwe
c Angola
d Rwanda

2 Alan Sugar engaged in a Twitter war with which woman, calling her the worst Celebrity Apprentice contestant and saying "she really needs to think about a diet"?
a Clare Balding
b Ruby Wax
c Jo Brand
d Kirstie Allsopp

3 In May, Channel 4 drew 350 complaints after showing the UK's first television advert for what?
a An Islamic charity
b Scientology
c Advice on abortion services
d Penis enlargement

4 Which TV news presenter mistook the Ash Wednesday cross on the forehead of the Catholic US vice-president, Joe Biden, for a bruise?
a Kay Burley
b Julie Etchingham
c Natasha Kaplinsky
d Anna Botting

5 Which selection of nine letters resulted in a rude word, and a round of Countdown being cut from the show?


1 In April, which newspaper published the front-page headline "Clegg in Nazi slur on Britain"?
a Daily Mail
b Sun
c Daily Express
d Daily Star

2 Zac Goldsmith called which man a "charlatan" after an angry television clash concerning his election spending?
a Jon Snow
b Jeremy Paxman
c Andrew Neil
d Nick Robinson

3 What amount of money did Sarah Ferguson tell an undercover reporter from the News of the World could "open doors" and gain access to her ex-husband, Prince Andrew?
a £50,000
b £100,000
c £250,000
d £500,000

4 President Obama sacked his top commander in Afghanistan - General Stanley McChrystal - after a candid interview criticising the US administration was published in which magazine?
a Rolling Stone
b Vanity Fair
c New Yorker
d Harper's Magazine

5 Talking about celebrities launching lawsuits against the News of the World, the lawyer Mark Lewis said: "Getting a letter from Scotland Yard that your phone has been hacked is rather like . . ."?
a "the taxman notifying you of a huge rebate"
b "finding out a relative has left you thousands in their will"
c "receiving winning Lotto numbers in the post"
d "getting a Willy Wonka golden ticket"


1 What ransom was demanded for Jonathan Franzen's glasses after they were stolen at the Serpentine Gallery launch of his novel Freedom?
a £1
b £100
c £10,000
d £100,000

2 Which writer founded the Democratic Front for People's Federation party to fight corruption in his native Nigeria?
a Chinua Achebe
b Wole Soyinka
c Ben Okri
d Ken Wiwa

3 Which novelist compared becoming a grandfather to "getting a telegram from the mortuary"?
a Ian McEwan
b Martin Amis
c Philip Pullman
d William Boyd

4 Which of these novelists was the first to pass away this year?
a Beryl Bainbridge
b José Saramago
c Dick Francis
d J D Salinger

5 Who accidentally coined the neologism "refudiate" - the New Oxford American Dictionary's "Word of the Year"?
a Sarah Palin
b Barack Obama
c Rush Limbaugh
d John Boehner


1 What was the score in the fifth set of the first-round Wimbledon singles match played by the American John Isner and Frenchman Nicolas Mahut?
a 48-46
b 55-53
c 62-60
d 70-68

2 David Cameron described which sports TV commentator's work as "just epic"?
a Sid Waddell
b John Motson
c Murray Walker
d Richie Benaud

3 Which World Cup result-predicting "psychic" octopus passed away on 26 October?
a John
b Paul
c George
d Peter

4 Which Australian bowler took a hat trick on the first day of the 2010 Ashes series?
a Shane Watson
b Peter Siddle
c Mitchell Johnson
d Ben Hilfenhaus

5 The skeleton bob champion Amy Williams won Britain its first Winter Olympic individual gold since which year?
a 1972
b 1980
c 1992
d 2002


1 Silvio Berlusconi said: “It is better to be passionate about beautiful girls than" what?
a "be gay"
b "be a thief"
c "anything else
in the world"
d "climate change"

2 What did Elaine Paige say of her fellow singer Susan Boyle's phenomenal success?
a "A lovely breath of
fresh air"
b "She's my new heroine"
c "A virus that swept
the world"
d "Unbelievable in every sense of the word"

3 What did the US vice-president, Joe Biden, say was "a big fucking deal"?
a Being the US
b Passing of health-care reform
c The loss of the House
of Representatives
d Reaction to his "say something nice" gaffe

4 Who said: "I'm delighted with my new role as the Lipton Ice Tea ambassador . . . its values match those that are important in my life"?
a Nicole Kidman
b Daniel Craig
c Keira Knightley
d Hugh Jackman

5 The former BP chief executive, Tony Hayward, said the environmental impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was "likely to be" what?
a "rather messy"
b "negligible"
c "very, very modest"
d "worse than you can possibly imagine"

This article first appeared in the 20 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood