The great unknowns

7 October 2017

9:00 AM

7 October 2017

9:00 AM

Have you heard about the invention that cures your smartphone addiction? Whereas normally you can’t go more than a minute or two without checking your phone, this invention allows you to sit with the thing safely tucked away in your pocket or bag, not giving it a second thought. The invention is known as the ‘quiz’.

You’d have thought that smartphones would have killed off this British institution. A pub quiz, with the answer to every question in the world just a fumbled, sneaky glance away? Surely cheating would become rife, rendering the whole exercise pointless? But that hasn’t happened. There’s something about a quiz that returns us to our pre-smartphone mindset, where if we didn’t know something, we didn’t know it. In fact we like being in this position. We love, to borrow Donald Rumsfeld’s phrase, a ‘known unknown’. There is a joy in for once having to wait to find out. In a world of instant answers, the pub quiz shows that we still have the capacity to delay our gratification.

‘The avocado,’ for instance, ‘derives its name from which part of the body?’ Ask that in a quiz, and despite the fact that Wikipedia is sitting on everyone’s phone, itching to give them the solution, they will instead sit there enjoying the challenge of working it out. What’s more, that effort is undertaken as part of a team: there’s something very social about a quiz. ‘After which 20th century person is Cristiano Ronaldo named?’ You might start to consider famous Christophers, but then one member of your team will point out that Ronaldo is a given name as well, and your reasoning will go in a different direction.

Some questions initially sound more difficult than they are. For example: ‘The Advocatus Diaboli was an official in the Catholic Church who tested the case for possible canonisations by arguing against them. His title gave rise to which modern phrase?’ Because there’s Latin involved, you’ll feel all the more clever because you can solve it without your phone.

Actually some of the best questions are Google-proof in the first place (or as near as dammit). ‘The broadcaster Michael Cockerell has interviewed every British prime minister from Harold Macmillan to David Cameron. Which was the only one Cockerell saw using their fingers to count on?’ You’re unlikely to have read the newspaper article in which that fact was revealed, so you’ll have to guess. And that’s the joy — it’s fun not knowing, having to go through the PMs and hazard a guess. I tested Alastair Campbell on it once. He thought for a moment, then said: ‘I bet it was Gordon.’ I had to tell him it was the one immediately before Gordon. Cockerell was interviewing Blair while Cherie was pregnant with their fourth child, and mentioned that he himself had seven children. ‘Even after this one,’ said Blair, counting on his fingers, ‘I would need another three to catch up with you.’

Also unGoogleable is: ‘On the evening of Thursday 4 August 2016, after a day spent commentating on the Edgbaston Test match, Shane Warne persuaded Henry Blofeld to try something for the first time. It caused Blofeld to utter the sentence: “There is a glass inside my glass.” What was Blofeld trying?’

Sometimes a question will show how fallible our memories are. It’s only a few months since the Oscars, but could you name the two films involved in the ‘Best Picture’ mix-up? And if so, could you get them the right way round — which was mistakenly announced and which was the real winner?

Often a question will contain the clues you need to solve it. ‘Which confectionery company was founded by Hans Riegel in Bonn?’ You might get the feeling — and you’d be right — that the order in which those names appear will lead you to the solution. Sometimes it’s more a case of educated guesswork, as in tiebreakers, where the winner is the team nearest to the correct answer. Try: ‘In which year did the last widow of a veteran of the American Civil War die?’

But occasionally it’s a question’s very absurdity that makes it entertaining. ‘As of summer 2016, in all of Jason Statham’s movies combined, which had he thrown more of — kicks or punches?’ In essence you’re tossing a coin — but the teams that get it right will cheer as though they’ve discovered the meaning of life. Trust me, I’ve seen it happen.

For the quiz answers, go to the letters page.

For more quizzing, listen to Mark and QI’s Andrew Hunter Murray on The Spectator Podcast.

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