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.

Photo: Getty
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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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