England manager Gareth Southgate. CREDIT: GETTY
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Knighthoods, chicken wings and plantar fasciitis: my World Cup predictions

We know which players are likely to go, but what will happen when our lads finally get to Russia?

Not long now till the World Cup, hurrah, and am soooo looking forward. Every tournament since 1966 I told my wife the same thing. “If you have anything to say to me, pet, say it now. For the next five weeks, I will be watching the football.”

I didn’t realise, back in 2014, that it would be the last time I said it. She died in 2016.

So I will be on my own this summer, able to watch round the clock, have the telly really loud. Life is good. Not.

The back pages have already had fun listing players who might make the England squad, putting them in categories: the ones already on the plane, the ones waiting in the departure lounge, the ones at home sitting by the phone, the ones who need not cancel their summer holidays. The taste of the moment is Raheem Sterling, who everyone says is a certainty. The goalkeepers, though, are a problem. Nobody can agree. I am therefore tipping Peter Shilton for a late call-up, even at 68.

The World Cup copy has started early – not because the nation is ever so optimistic but because the Prem is over. Man City have won it by miles. So much for Sky TV constantly telling us the Premier League “is the most competitive league in the world”. How can that be, when one team has been so much better than the rest?

We know which players are likely to go, because the brains of the back pages have told us, but what will happen when our lads finally get to Russia? This too can be arranged under various headings – of possibility and surmise.

Dead certain

An injury we have never heard of before, like that metatarsal, will dominate the last week as a nation agonises about whether Harry or Raheem or even Eric or Jordan – for we will have to worry about the mediocre as well – will recover in time.

I am predicting this summer’s headline injury will be plantar fasciitis. One of my dear friends has it, on the ball of her foot. She is very glamorous and fashionable. And athletic. Medical experts and graphic artists will have a field day.

Pretty certain

“Flexible players” will be what Gareth reveals he is looking for. He wants central defenders who can play full-back, do a bit of physio, carry the towels, sell hot dogs, drive the team coach and generally muck in when the going gets tough. Lucky for Eric and Jordan. Perfect fits.

Just vaguely possible

We will manage a 0-0 draw with both Tunisia and Panama, leading to dancing in the street, bonfires, and Gareth receiving a knighthood. Or at least being made archbishop. He has always looked the part.

Likely

England will get an award as the dullest team so far at the World Cup – plus a Highly Commended for Special Skills, which covers pointing violently at nowhere when you have done something really stupid, and the new trick of holding one hand over the mouth so that English speakers around the world can’t work out what the f*** you are saying. They have been practising all season.

Inevitable

Gary Lineker says England are a disgrace, he is not watching football any more. Clare Balding stands by.

Highly unlikely

We get a 0-0 draw with Belgium – which means we go out, but will be welcomed home as heroes for not getting stuffed by anyone and not conceding a goal. Clare Balding is on the tarmac at Stansted. The lads arrive at Southend. At last, she says, we have avenged that humiliation inflicted upon us by those giants of the game, Iceland. Clare moves on to report wild scenes in Trafalgar Square. The lads are still at Nando’s at Southend.

Impossible

Belgium drops out. All their diplomats and chocolates have been expelled from Moscow. Belgian government withdraws team in retaliation. England get their place. They return to Russia, without finishing their chicken wings.

Totally impossible

England win the final against Spain! On penalties! Peter Shilton saves them all, despite being in his pyjamas and on crutches. Gareth becomes a duke. 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.