It was halfway through lunch that something reminded my friend Marcus about Ray Charles and his plane. ‘Did you know he used to fly it himself?’ he asked the rest of us. ‘When it reached cruising altitude he’d insist on taking the controls. Obviously his passengers were terrified. They thought a blind man playing chess was one thing, but flying a plane? Someone asked him once why he did it. He said: “Because it’s mine.”’
This triggered a memory of my own. ‘It was the same with his car,’ I said. ‘One day he insisted on driving it. When his chauffeur tried to stop him, Charles said “Who paid for the car?” They were at an intersection. Charles ploughed straight into another car.’
At this point Susie, who has known Marcus and me for ages, leaned across to Ciara, who’d only just met us. ‘You’ll get used to this with these two,’ she said. ‘Competitive fact-swapping.’
But Susie was wrong. It isn’t competitiveness that makes Marcus and me swap facts — it’s enthusiasm. We remember something interesting, we want to share it. And tangents working as they do, the conversations sometimes go on for a while. We don’t plan them like this; it just happens. We both experience the joy of learning new things, of being educated and amused by the contents of someone else’s brain.
In fact it’s the opposite of competitive. Neither of us wants to ‘win’, in the sense of coming out with a fact that stops the other person replying. Because that would mean an end to our entertainment. We want the conversation to keep going forever, an infinite tennis rally of facts. Most of my male friends are the same. And Susie wasn’t the first woman to misunderstand us.
Take the time a friend told me about the Greek national anthem having 158 verses. I laughed at the glorious absurdity of it. His wife, aware that I write about trivia for a living, said: ‘I bet you’re annoyed there was something you didn’t know.’ But she had it completely the wrong way round. What could be worse than knowing everything? You’d be condemned to a life in which there was nothing left to learn, no discoveries to be made.
Not that anyone gets anywhere near that state, of course. Stephen Fry, whose fact-stash is bigger than most people’s, observes in the QIBook of General Ignorance that when people tell him he knows a lot, it’s ‘a bit like telling a person who has a few grains of sand clinging to him that he owns much sand. When you consider the vast amount of sand there is in the world, such a person is, to all intents and purposes, sandless.’
Of course I can see why women mistake male enthusiasm for male competitiveness. Many men are, let’s be honest, revoltingly competitive. I have witnessed one using his smartphone to cheat at a quiz being held in aid of a primary school. Simon Day’s Competitive Dad character in The Fast Show was funny because he was so recognisable. And the football manager Graham Taylor once confessed that he could never let his five-year-old granddaughter win every race in the back garden — he always had to beat her at least once, for pride’s sake.
This is the backdrop that other males have painted for us. And when the activity in which we’re engaged involves one participant speaking, then the other, then the first again (or going round in turns if there are more than two of you), I can understand why it looks like a competition.
But my male friends and I really aren’t like that. We abhor competitiveness. It’s a tedious, soul-numbing, terminally off-putting quality. It tends to be displayed by the type of man who engages in ‘banter’ (aggression disguised as humour, or rather something that passes for humour). The type of man who has to turn everything into a race, or a bet, or both. The type of man who starts ‘down in one’ contests.
The curious thing about such men is that, for all their desire to compete against others, in the end they’re really only interested in themselves. They’re narcissists. My friends and I, on the other hand, are genuinely fascinated by other people. That’s why we remember so many facts about them. Only the interesting ones, mind you. It isn’t interesting that Ray Charles was born on 23 September 1930. But it is interesting that he flew his own plane, and drove his own car.
So while Narcissus is at the bar trying to beat his mates, you’ll find us sitting quietly in the corner, exploring those tangents. Someone will mention 1p coins, the older ones made of copper, which because of the metal’s increased price are now worth more than 1p. This will remind someone else of Ernest Hemingway’s swimming pool, which has a one cent coin pushed into its cement — the writer put it there because the pool ‘cost me my last penny’. This in turn will remind a third person that all the gold ever mined would fit into four Olympic swimming pools.
Anyone listening who thought we were Homo competitivus would assume we were trying to win some stupid game. But we’re not. We want to be joint winners. Or rather, we want trivia to be the winner.
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