The pub quiz question I can never answer: why do I keep taking part in pub quizzes?

It’s like watching University Challenge; when alone, I get half the questions right. With anyone else there, I am reduced to embarrassed silence. 

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“Would you like to keep your answers?” asks the quizmaster, handing me over the sheet of paper. “No,” I snarl. I have no wish to be reminded of this latest humiliation.

Yes, I have yet again succumbed to the unholy allure of the pub quiz. This one is held on Mondays at the Battle of Trafalgar in Brighton, featuring eight rounds in which to expose one’s ignorance to the world, or rather to oneself and everyone else in the pub.

It all started innocently enough. My friend J– and I had gone to the pub one Monday evening, not realising it was quiz night. We missed the start, but were early enough to overhear a good many of the questions, which were, as is invariably the case when one has no skin in the game, laughably easy. We reeled off the answers. “India.” “Stanley Baldwin.” “Lithium.” The same thing happens when I watch University Challenge. When I’m on my own, I get about half the questions right, even some of the science ones. If I watch it in the company of anyone else, I am reduced to impotent, embarrassed silence. It is the neatest demonstration of the quantum observer effect that I can think of.

So why don’t I learn? I suppose part of it is the companionship. J– is a fellow hack and wears a fedora, pin-striped suits and has black nail varnish, so he fits into Brighton like a hand into a glove, even if – or perhaps because – he’s from the West Country and calls people “my lovely”.

The worst was the pre-Christmas quiz we went to at another pub. One of the questions – and here the word “question” has to take an awful lot of ontological strain – involved each team being given a lump of plasticine and being asked to make a representation of Father Christmas and the Baby Jesus “being friends”. I thought of making a run for it.

“I refuse to participate in this tomfoolery,” I said, pinching one of my daughter’s lines, although in the end I helped by making the manger, in the most rudimentary fashion possible. We got a point for sheer ineptitude, but I was, I must admit, impressed by one team’s effort, which showed Father Christmas doing something to the Baby Jesus that I would prefer to draw a veil over.

That quiz, presided over by some 12-year-old who thought he was funny, was so traumatic that I doubt I’ll ever again return to that pub, regardless of whether it’s hosting a quiz.

But back to the Battle. J– and I were handicapped by being only two people. We were supposed to have two other team members but one broke her arm and the other left the country in order to avoid the grisly Brexit business. As for me, I might as well have not turned up. But come on, how on Earth am I meant to know, let alone remember, who wrote Jonathan Creek? (Actually, I think J– got that one.)

But now I’m beginning to wish that I had kept that answer sheet. Not only would it have helped me to write this column but I could have framed it and put it on the wall as a reminder that I am not, as I would like to think, one of the sharper knives in the drawer. I have a dim memory, which I try to repress, of becoming horribly unglued about African geography.

“At least we didn’t have a Tabasco Moment,” said J– at the end. This is a reference to the previous week’s quiz, when we both failed to work out which Mexican state was also the name of a spicy sauce. People have committed suicide over lesser humiliations. But then a string of small moments like that add up, and take their toll on the soul.

I mentioned this to my daughter recently and she told me of a particularly brutal quiz she attended in which her team came a very distant last place. One round asked contestants to name all the eight varieties  of grape that can be used to make champagne. Eight? Can that be right? Even Wikipedia says that only seven are allowed.

But it is an extraordinary institution, the pub quiz. The thought that every evening, pubs across the land are filled with people trying to remember the month in which the Cheltenham Gold Cup takes place, or who was the first child to be born to a reigning monarch in the 20th century. I took a wild punt at Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, which is wrong for more than one reason. The answer, we learned, is Prince Andrew, and I am now even more of an anti-royalist than I was before.

Are quizzes a purely British thing? Does any other nation do this? And if not, why not? Is it because people in the rest of the world are able to have conversations? I try to conjure up a mental image of a bar full of Italians doing a quiz and I can’t, I just can’t.

Well, as it turns out, my finances are now so rocky that I can’t even afford to go to the pub any more. So every cloud has a silver lining, I suppose. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 07 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Europe after Brexit

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