When bad things happen, it is important to take stock, to find comfort in one’s achievements, to count one’s blessings. And right now all I can think of that fills me with any degree of pride is that my team has now won the weekly Covid Arms quiz nine times. There’s another team that has also won it nine times; but no one has won it more often. No, really: this is important.
It started 60 weeks ago, with lockdown. The host and quiz-setter was Marcus Berkmann, who is mainly known for his highly amusing books (Rain Men, Zimmer Men) about running a cricket team of, as it is politely called, mixed ability. His Cricketing Miscellany achieved respectable sales; and he is also a dedicated quizmaster. (Not one to pass up a successful formula, his book about pub quizzes was called Brain Men.)
So every Monday at 8.30pm, Marcus would set up a video link and somewhere between 50 and 60 teams would try to answer the 20 unthemed questions he set us, along with two tiebreak questions that were more or less impossible to guess. They were numerical by nature: one would have to have a stab at answering questions such as, “What year was salted caramel invented?” or, “According to the Washington Post, how many verified lies did Donald Trump tell during his time as president?” (The answers to these are 1977 and 30,573 respectively.) The tiebreaks are important because each week quite a few teams get all the other 20 questions right. There is usually much grumbling about the tiebreaks. The occasional binary questions are also a source of much frustration, eg, “Can you burp in space?” (You can’t.)
Monday 17 May was the final quiz. Thanks to a long-running in-joke among the team I play for, the others decided to call ourselves “Finally, It’s Nicholas Lezard’s Team”, which I found mildly amusing, but seemed to be very much a hostage to fortune: I foresaw humiliation. But as it turned out, we won (we guessed that Trump had told 30,000 fibs, which was the closest). I wonder how much I contributed: by 8.30pm I am usually a few glasses in, but, then again, on the rare occasions when I have done the quiz stone-cold sober there was no discernible difference in my performance. My teammates, on the other hand, are responsible and mature, so they did most of the heavy lifting.
Why does this kind of thing matter to me – and to all the other regular players? It started as something to do during lockdown, of course, but then it achieved a kind of life of its own. It was a weekly ritual: watching Marcus sitting on the blue chair of trivia, as he called it, and getting mildly sloshed on red wine while he read out the questions became something of a fixed point in a world of uncertainties.
The thing is, I don’t really like regular pub quizzes at the best of times. The only pub quiz I liked was the Uxbridge Arms quiz, because it was wildly eccentric in format and was more of a social gathering among friends than anything else; there was none of that rubbish about themed rounds, jokers where your points count double, etc, and you didn’t have to know all about football and Love Island.
I remember once entering a pub halfway through its quiz: the quizmaster pronounced “Derringer” incorrectly, and I had to speak up, even though I wasn’t playing; he took it pretty well, and then quietly asked me how to pronounce “Pompidou” for the next question. But a quiz where the person asking the questions doesn’t know how to pronounce them is not my idea of a good night out. Also, most pub quizzes go on for ages.
I know a very intelligent woman who scorns all quizzes: she is very relieved that Marcus’s quiz is now over. Her disdain is, I suggested, partly due to the possibility that she might have the odd lacuna in her knowledge exposed: she conceded this, but still made the point that the kind of knowledge that wins pub quizzes is not necessarily useful. I can’t really argue with that: knowing as I do now that one cannot burp in space is not actually going to make much practical difference to my life. I mean, it’s not as if I’m going into space any time soon. (Although if by a miracle I ever was, the first thing I would do would be to try to burp.)
It’s mainly a male thing, I suppose; not exclusively by any means, but there is something willy-waving about it; and as with all such activities, there is something hollow even in victory. Sometimes I manage to complete this magazine’s crossword, and when I do I ask myself: is that it? At least with the quiz there is a strong social element, of the kind where you don’t have to make any extraneous conversation if you don’t have anything else to say. And there was one very nice thing about Marcus’s quiz: no one cheated.
This article appears in the 26 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new Toryism