Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman, the kind and non-judgmental hosts of Pointless. Photo: Getty Images
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At once fascinating, horrifying and mildly arousing, ignorance porn is everywhere (and I love it)

Shows like Pointless satisfy a new itch - to gawp at those who don't know obvious things, like what toast is. It's hardcore ignorance porn at its best.

“Stupidity is a talent for misconception,” said Edgar Allan Poe, ages ago.

While shaping the history of gothic literature, marrying his 13-year-old cousin, contracting various antiquated diseases and fixating, verbosely, on decomposing flesh, Edgar Allan “Fun Times” Poe took a moment to recognise stupidity as a talent.

Fast forward nearly 200 years, cross the Atlantic to the UK, and a couple of monumentally-talented quiz show contestants have never heard of the guy.

I watch BBC One’s Pointless religiously. Working from (your parents’) home has its perks. Being able to drop everything, every weekday evening at 5.15, yell, “Pointless!” at my mum and have her “warm up” the TV in preparation for our 45 minutes of pure, tea-fuelled viewing bliss, is probably the perkiest perk.

Pointless, for those who are missing out horribly, is a programme where some people who – well – probably shouldn’t be competing on a quiz show, and a few slightly cleverer people, battle it out to see who has the most obscure knowledge. While the smarty pantses usually win, the entertainment is provided almost entirely by the people who think linoleum is a vegetable, lemons are bats and Ross Kemp is the capital of France. Or, as was the case in a recent show, have never heard of Edgar Allan Poe.

Now, I don’t want to sound all “I have an English literature degree, I eat artichokes and know who the fuck Edgar Allan Poe is”. But, for a poet, this guy is remarkably visible in popular culture. He’s heavily referenced in more than one Simpsons episode. His sad, moustachioed face is practically a logo. If the name isn’t ringing any bells, I challenge you to Google image it and not recognise that face. You’ve probably at least seen it on a T-shirt worn by a gothy teenager who thinks that he knows some unfathomably dark truth because he smokes Djarum Black cigarettes and has Nosferatu on DVD.

But back to Pointless. When a contestant comes up with a particularly silly answer to a question I practically start salivating. Meanwhile, presenters Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman (who seems like the nicest man on earth) are ostensibly non-judgemental. True professionalism, it seems, is keeping a straight face when someone has just come up with Simon Cowell when asked to name someone on the Forbes list of the world’s most powerful people (this actually happened).

“Dude, no way does she think that! Jesus fucking Christ, what is wrong with people?” I’ll say, so excited by this horrible situation that I’ve started calling my mum “dude”. There’s no way around it: delving into the great, echoey gaps in other people’s knowledge makes for weirdly compelling TV. This is ignorance porn. It’s the phenomenon of someone saying something so stupid that it kind of makes you want to tug on your balls. This is unfortunate for me, seeing as I have very few testicles. Nevertheless, it’s a combination of fascination, horror and, for some reason, mild arousal.

When I was very little, I cut my finger. Having never seen blood before, I was so panicked that I kept a plaster on it for what seemed like months. When I finally psyched myself up into taking the plaster off, the tip of my finger had turned green and smelled like vinegar. I stared at that finger for a long, long time. It was so horrendous, so unashamedly repulsive that it was almost handsome. Like an inside-out Ryan Gosling, with his guts flailing all over the place. I enjoy other people’s ignorance in the same way that I enjoyed that unholy green finger.  

And I know it’s not just me. Ignorance porn is absolutely everywhere. Last month, for example, Tamara Ecclestone (a socialite of some description) revealed that she doesn’t know what toast is. By some miracle, this woman has thrived for thirty years in this unforgiving world, without that little nugget of knowledge. What ensued was an internet-wide extravaganza of people tugging on their balls. “She doesn’t. Know. What. Toast. Is. Holy shitbiscuits this is nuts,” said the internet, while enjoying itself thoroughly.

Similarly, earlier this year, when some poor 20-year-old from Blackpool tweeted about the UK’s “President Barraco Barner”, she became an unwitting ignorance porn star. The Only Way Is Essex's Joey Essex, on the other hand, is a true veteran of ignorance porn. The entire premise of the TOWIE spinoff, Educating Joey Essex, was “Joey Essex is not a particularly bright guy”.

Ignorance porn even has its very own Redtube in BuzzFeed, which seems to thrive on listing people who have been publicly thick. I can only speculate that our morbid obsession with other people’s stupidity comes from collective low self-esteem. Want to feel intelligent? Peruse a BuzzFeed listicle of cretins. What’s actually happening here is bullying on a humungous scale. It’s like everyone who was teased at school for being bookish is exacting revenge against The Idiotic.

Admittedly, there are almost definitely gaps in my knowledge that could form someone else’s ignorance porn. I have close to no knowledge of physics, and if I was tasked with killing, eviscerating and cooking a cow, I wouldn’t know where to start. In fact, judging other people’s ignorance has made me utterly fixated on my own. I recently read the entire Wikipedia entry for microwaves, because I realised I had absolutely no idea how one works. And when it comes to ignorance porn, I’m a sports fan’s wet dream. Honest to God, The only cricketer I can name off the top of my head is the retired Ian Botham – and that’s only because he starred in that recent Twitter dick pic debacle. For all I know, those people who had never heard of Edgar Allan Poe could’ve been experts in cricket, microwaves and animal slaughter.

As ignorance porn has proven, stupidity is this great, palpable, throbbing thing. It almost seems a shame that we can’t harness its power as a source of clean energy. Imagine it: something resembling a wind turbine powered by people asking what the capital of Africa is.

Until that breakthrough, I’m going to try and cut down on my unhealthy ignorance porn habit. And maybe try out a butchery course.  

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

Anthony Clavane's A Yorkshire Tragedy: The Rise and Fall of a Sporting Powerhouse is published by Riverrun

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era