Low life

Jeremy Clarke: How to cheat at a pub quiz without even knowing it

14 September 2013

9:00 AM

14 September 2013

9:00 AM

One evening last week, I trotted over to the caravan site’s clubhouse to use the wifi and pick up emails. One email was from a friend who reported that someone had described me, after meeting me for the first time, as an ‘intellectual’. Unsure whether to be flattered or appalled by this misjudgment, I ordered a hot panini (cheese and red onion) to save cooking dinner back at the caravan and running the battery down on the smoke detector, which was going off so often when I cooked that I’d begun using it as a timer.

As I rammed the panini into my face, an elderly man, with what was almost certainly a chapel Christian face, came and set up a table, chair and microphone in a central position. Another smaller, facetious-looking fellow came round issuing biros, clipboards and paper. ‘You’ll join us for the quiz,’ he said. My cheeks bulging with panini, I shook my head. He gave me a clipboard and biro anyway.

He then ordered me to move across and join a team consisting of a woman and her daughter who’d brought three hens on holiday with them. I’d noticed them — three plump brown hens in a wood and wire coop — on my daily jog around the site. Once I’d stopped near the coop for a breather, and the woman had come out and presented me with a freshly collected egg, which I’d jogged back with, smooth and still warm in my hand. She and her daughter were drinking Harvey Wallbangers.

Then the facetious-looking man decided instead that I should join forces with a late arrival, who drew up a chair opposite mine. He was also drinking Harvey Wallbangers. (I assumed this was due to a special promotion rather than to a peculiarity of the local Cornish culture.) He tipped back his head and downed his first as though it were nothing stronger than freshly squeezed orange juice, then called immediately for another. When that came, he raised it to his lips, threw back his head again, but managed to restrain himself and only allow half of it to tip down his throat. He was about 65 years old. He had humorous eyes and a sharp, youthful haircut. His voice was low and deeply Cornish. The quizmaster for Jesus blew on the mike, called for quiet and began to read from his prepared list of questions. I took up the biro.

My team mate was a sportsman and a team player. He was anxious to win and give his all for the cause. At the asking of each question, he went into paroxysms of agony and despair. He invariably knew the answer. It was just a question of ransacking his brains until he lighted on it. The head slumped forward until his chin was resting on his chest, as though he were deep in prayer. The squeezed shut eyelids pressed the eyeballs back into his head, perhaps to exert extra pressure on the brain. But the answer was most often tantalisingly just out of reach. And then he would lift his head and blink in surprise, as though he’d just regained consciousness, shake his head in sorrow and profound regret, and I would write down the correct answer. For the majority of the questions, though carefully thought-out, were surprisingly easy. What is the national bird of the United States? What is the other name of the ‘killer whale’? And so on.

But as luck would have it, fortified by several additional, urgently called-for Harvey Wallbangers, my partner dug deep and found the answers to those questions I couldn’t answer. The number of years celebrated by a coral wedding anniversary. The number of books of the Old Testament. And best of all, the name of Steptoe and Son’s horse (Hercules). This last answer was dredged up from the depths after a titanic mental struggle, during which his chin rested on his chest for so long that I assumed he had fallen asleep.

To the great surprise of both of us, we won the quiz by a country mile. We rose to a patter of reluctant, jealous applause and stepped forward to collect our boxes of chocolates. Before accepting his, however, my team mate’s conscience got the better of him and he took up the microphone. He had a confession to make, he said. He had also taken part in last week’s quiz, and this week’s questions were exactly the same as last week’s. But he wanted to assure everybody that during the week the answers had all completely gone from his mind except Steptoe’s horse. And as we had won the quiz by so many points, he said, he had no other qualms about accepting the prize. ‘Excuse me, are you a teacher or something?’ said a lad on one of the other teams as I made my way back to my seat.

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