Last of the Summer Moet, my new novel, is just out. It’s a comedy set in Britain’s Poshest Village. Naturally it has the poshest residents and the poshest pub. And the poshest pub quiz! A centrepiece of the action is when someone very famous cheats at said pub quiz and all hell breaks loose! Do you like quizzes? I do, and here’s why…
We Brits love a quiz, and none more so than me. There’s nowhere I won’t go to take part in one. My family thinks we holiday in Cornwall because of the wave-lashed coasts and romantic villages. Actually, it’s because I love the pub quiz at the Engineer Inn. It’s near the village of Heamoor, meaning our team can call ourselves The Heamoorhoids. Stupid names are a big part of quizzing.
I’ve lived in Derbyshire for the last decade, and a large part of its attraction is the quizzes. The one organised by my neighbour for the Children’s Society is the jewel in the local social crown. Over a hundred people, many in red trousers, gather in the village hall to do battle. The atmosphere is electrically tense. We crunch nervously on big bowls of crisps as we scan the titles of the upcoming eight rounds. On which shall we play our joker and get double points?
Our crack team all have individual areas of expertise. I’m supposed to be history and literature, although my best ever performance was on a round about the royals. My knowing that Prince Charles was partly educated at Geelong Grammar School, Australia landed us full marks (and we played our joker). We won, although at considerable cost to my personal cool. But what was this compared to the fury of the team left trailing in our wake and denied the coveted trophy of a Terry’s Chocolate Orange?
I never expected, even so, that what started as a passing fancy would become practically a second career. It began with appearing on radio quizzes; Radio Four’s Quote Unquote and The Write Stuff with Sebastian Faulks. There’s really nothing quite so exciting as pressing a buzzer on the BBC. But recently my question-answering has reached the Olympian heights of telly. I’ve been in no less than two episodes of BBC2’s Celebrity Eggheads with the wonderful Jeremy Vine.
My first stint on the show was with a team of writers. Under the slightly ho-hum name of ‘Page Turners’ we put up a surprisingly strong defence against the resident Eggs. Unwisely, but for patriotic reasons, I chose to go head-to-head against the self-styled ‘Brain of Derbyshire’, an Egg called Steve.
I was edging in front when I was slipped a crippler asking me to name a Romanian sculptor. Of course I couldn’t, but the name of Constantin Brancusi has not been far from my lips since. If I had a dog, or even a cat, I’d definitely call it that. We lost, anyway, but by the narrowest of margins. Jeremy went beserk on Twitter about the Eggs’ near-death experience and we’ve gone down in Egg history as the strongest-ever opposition.
What it must be like being Jeremy Vine I simply can’t imagine, because even the shortest stint on Eggheads gets you near-international recognition. I’ve lost count of the people who were ‘just changing channels and happened to see you’. Naturally, I bit their hand off when Eggheads asked me on a second time.
We filmed it this January, and to my delight a member of my team was the glorious George Costigan, who played Bob in Rita, Sue And Bob Too, one of my most favourite-ever films.
George was more than just a pretty face though, he was brilliant on the movie round and knew everything there was to know about Manchester City. All the sports questions seem to be about them for some reason and even though I’d prepped by reading the newspaper sports pages till my eyes glazed over (about 3 seconds in all), the names of the footballers went ‘through my head like water through a sieve’ (Lewis Carroll, The Jumblies, as every quizzer knows). As the show hasn’t yet been broadcast, I can’t reveal the result; stand by your remotes, everyone.
Quizzing is part of my life to such an extent that I’ve put it in my latest comic novel, Last of The Summer Moet. The action is set in the fictional Great Hording, aka Britain’s Poshest Village, whose super-elite residents commute by helicopter and whose annual panto stars Oscar-winners. The local gastropub, gathering the ultra-competitive A-list locals together, holds the world’s most upmarket pub quiz. Disaster strikes when the local cabinet minister cheats – he uses his smartphone to find out what the PM’s favourite crisp flavour is. He is photographed by a mystery spy, the picture is published everywhere and a Profumo-style scandal ensues.
Cheating at quizzes is obviously dastardly, but it happens. Some contestants in Radio 2’s Popmaster surely have friends with smartphones on hand. I can’t remember whether I discussed this point with a fellow Popmaster addict and eminent writer who I met at a dinner party recently. But I do remember thinking that here was another smart quiz fan.
Quizzes, you see, are positively posh these days. The arrival of upmarket Alexander Armstrong on the BBC’s Pointless has sent quizzing into the social stratosphere, attracting grand contestants like hunkstorian Dan Snow, married to the sister of the Duke of Westminster, and Radio 3’s cut-glass Clemency Burton-Hill.
Pointless thus builds on the excellent groundwork done by the magnificently patrician Jeremy Paxman on the Oxbridgetastic University Challenge. I also know from friends that The Chase is a must-watch in boarding schools up and down the land. Parents may think they’re paying for an expensive education. And they are - but by Bradley Walsh.
I mention University Challenge. Sadly, my stint in tertiary education was in the 1980s, when the programme was taking a break. It’s perhaps with this in mind that my old Cambridge college now runs alumni quiz nights at London pubs, so us fiftysomethings can get it out of our system.
That, however, is not the only outlet for the capital’s competitive know-alls. For the last couple of years I’ve been a regular at what must be London’s ultimate quiz night, The Rugby Portobello Quiz. It takes place in the basement of a Notting Hill social centre and attracts some of the area’s most glittering cleverclogs names.
Here my old mucker Sebastian Faulks takes arms against Victoria’s Daisy Goodwin and plenty of other media and literary superstars. The results are illuminated on betting-shop style display boards and teams are named after the local streets, splendid addresses which represent some of the most expensive real estate on the planet.
You can see where I got my book idea from.
Posh quizzes don’t have to be public though. Just as private festivals, to which hoi polloi are not invited, are on the rise, private quizzes are too. A colleague’s father, a prominent barrister, organises an annual ‘Review of the Year’ challenge which an ever-growing number of his nearest and dearest attend. I’m desperately angling for my invitation.
But if you don’t know any quiz-holding legal eagles, hold your own. There are some great weekly quizzes in the papers. My favourite is the FT Magazine one set by the brilliant James Walton. Staying with friends in Lewes the other week, we spent so much time doing it we barely went out at all.
Of course, the sixty four thousand dollar question is – why? What draws us Brits to quizzes in what seems ever-increasing numbers? Don’t get me started; there are millions of reasons. First and foremost we’re a nation of show-offs who can’t resist displaying our knowledge. Look at Boris Johnson and Michael Gove; neither able to utter a sentence without throwing in either the classics or the obscurer end of the thesaurus.
Secondly, it’s a kind of acceptable warfare. The violence isn’t physical, but you can land some serious blows. And it hurts like hell if you lose.
Conversely, there may be a comfort element; does the rise of quizzing reflect general fears about cultural dumbing down? As text-speak and emojis erode language, and ‘proper’ subjects fade into the background, our knowledge of Shakespeare and the Ganges delta become totemic. From football to GDP we Brits may be sliding down the rankings, but we can all name the Six Wives of Henry VIII. In the same way as the ancients preserved their culture in verbal poems, are we hanging on to ours via the good old pub quiz? Maybe.
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LAST OF THE SUMMER MOET
TOP reporter Laura Lake has struck journalistic gold. She’s discovered a secret country village where the British elite own weekend mansions. Film stars, famous artists and top writers, not to mention Cabinet ministers and the cream of M16, land their helicopters in the grounds of the gastropub and meet in the manicured streets to buy £100 loaves from the deli. Far from the prying eyes of the paparazzi they compete in the world’s most exclusive pub quiz and fight for parts in the celebrity panto.
But how is Laura to gain access to this undercover Eden, whose borders are strictly controlled? Luckily her billionairess friend Lulu, a logo-obsessed socialite with a heart as huge as her sunglasses, suddenly fancies a quiet life in the country.
Can Laura gatecrash the pub quiz, infiltrate the panto and write her expose before the snobbish villagers discover her identity? And before Lulu gets fed up and flees back to Kensington?