THE pub quiz is a uniquely British tradition, a heady brew of intellectual elan and saloon bar ego.
‘All right, ladies and gentlemen,” says Dr Paul. “It’s Thursday night, it’s nine o’clock, it’s time for the pub quiz – yeah!”
We are in The Newsroom in central Edinburgh, but we could be in any pub, anywhere in Scotland or elsewhere in the UK, on any night during the week, and we would be pretty sure of finding a quiz taking place.
Quizzes are worth an estimated £100 million each year to the pub trade; a quiz can easily triple the amount of money that would otherwise be taken across the bar on an ordinary midweek night. Around half of all British pubs host a weekly quiz; in an age when so many licensed premises are going out of business, survival may rest in part on the enthusiasm punters have for demonstrating publicly their knowledge of 19th-century fiction and the labyrinthine career of Andy Goram.
The pub quiz is uniquely British. Those corners of foreign lands which have embraced the phenomenon tend to be those populated by drouthy, couthie expats; an emigrant friend of mine who achieved some success as a member of Quizteama Aguilera at the Tuesday night quiz at The Doublet in Glasgow has, of late, set up a new team – Quizteama Fernandez de Kirchner – at the La Cigale bar in Buenos Aires.
Names are an important part of pub quiz culture. For consistently winning sides, the name becomes a brand, a way of psyching out the opposition. And like football sides, pub quiz team names can endure for many years, regardless of the players who pass through the ranks. Edinburgh side Another Fine Mess has been going for more than two decades, though there is some internal pressure to change the name to Alcoholics Unanimous. Film references are common inspirations for team names, as are groaning puns, and best of all are those – Quiz Quiztofferson, anyone? – which manage to combine both.
There are, broadly, two types of pub quiz – intellectual and entertaining. The quizzes of Dr Paul, a hirsute, dark-suited 40-year-old extrovert from Peebles who describes himself unblushingly as Scotland’s Top Quizmaster, fall into the latter category. Music – including, prominently, the theme from Knight Rider – is played between rounds; in the event of a tie, the winner is decided by a dance-off. Dr Paul has been running quizzes professionally since 1996, for most of that time in Glasgow, but more recently in Edinburgh. He does The Newsroom on a Thursday and two quizzes – The Brass Monkey in Leith and The Reverie in Newington – on Mondays.
“My quiz is for people who think that they don’t like pub quizzes,” he explains. “It’s for people on office nights out or for pals who work in call centres. It’s for normal people, but, equally, it’s not for complete morons.”
Edinburgh, according to seasoned observers of the scene, is home to a much higher standard of quizzer than Glasgow. Not that Glasgow lacks pub quizzes, but those taking part seem not to have the same obsessive drive to memorise facts as their east coast kin. The group dynamics are the same on both sides of the M8, however. The dominant personality in any pub quiz team holds the pen. Resentment can quickly build if what turns out to be the correct answer was rejected by the pen-holder (“Ah bloody telt ye it was Madame Bovary!”) and getting drunk too early is regarded as a rookie error, leading to shrunken brains and a swollen bladder. The optimum amount of alcohol drunk during a pub quiz appears to be three pints, one for the first hour, one for the second, and a third for the post-quiz analysis. Such moderation is, of course, scorned by Dr Paul. “See when you’ve got the right answer?” he suggests to the pub. “Why not order a sambuca?”
Around 40 people have turned up at The Newsroom to compete for the top prizes – a bottle of wine and 50 quid in cash. Pub quizzes are, generally, dominated by middle-aged men, but there are significant numbers of young women here tonight. Among them is 25-year-old Kat Grimley, here with workmates from H&M competing as The King-Size Quizlas, who punches the air in lager-fuelled triumph after winning the quiz with her knowledge of which product is made by the YKK Corporation of Japan. Answer: zips. “We,” declares her pal, Holly, afterwards, while smoking a fag in the rain, “are really f***in’ brainy.”
The other sort of pub quiz is not like this. It considers itself a cut above. “I like good old-fashioned general knowledge, not trivia,” says Colin Cruickshank, a teacher who runs a Wednesday quiz at Ye Olde Inn in Davidson’s Mains, a quiet suburb in north-west Edinburgh. In 1990, Colin was the last winner of Superscot before it was taken off the air. “I have questions on history, geography, literature and sport. A few people, their whole quiz is based on that day’s Metro. Well, those who come to my quiz wouldn’t stand for that. They want something that will challenge them.”
This distinction between general knowledge and that dread word trivia is key. The most dedicated quizzers embrace the former and despair of the latter as a corrosive force in the pub quiz scene. Take Melanie Beaumont. The 44-year-old interpreter attends at least three pub quizzes in Edinburgh each week with her team Another Fine Mess. She is also a regular on television quiz shows, having appeared on most of them and triumphed on a little more than half, including – most recently – The Chase. She has even been on Going For Gold, although admittedly during the base John Suchet era rather than the gilded reign of Henry Kelly. She takes an aesthetic pleasure in a well-compiled pub quiz, appreciating it as one might appreciate an Elizabethan play.
Quizzers sometimes talk about the “dramatic arc” of a quiz. They read reference books – The A-Z Of Quizzing, The Guinness Book Of Answers – instead of novels. They discuss with tremendous disdain contestants on the latest episode of University Challenge (“Wasn’t Strathclyde Hyslop dreadful?”) as if they were numpties on The Only Way Is Essex.
“Some pub quizzes are very elegant and crafted,” says Melanie. “They are not necessarily succinct because that’s not what we quizzers are necessarily about. But they hang together beautifully. Others are just sloppy. They ask you, “Who was voted out of the Big Brother house last week?” They dwell on things that are not of importance now and I certainly don’t think they will be of universal relevance at any time.”
In order to better understand serious quizzing, I join The Dude Abides at Ye Olde Inn. Named in reference to The Big Lebowski, this team is well known and widely feared. Tonight, there are five of us, all white, middle-aged professionals, the classic pub quiz type. There is one woman – Mary, a trainer, visiting from London. Niall, a plump, balding, twinkle-eyed Highlander in a bright tangerine polo shirt, is described to me as scion of the James Pringle knitwear company; he met his wife at a pub quiz at the Northern Bar in Canonmills. Another Dude Abides stalwart, Max, died earlier this year and is remembered fondly by team mates for his knowledge of quantum physics and his ability to name all of Deirdre Barlow’s husbands.
“A bad subject for me is TV in the Eighties,” Niall confesses. “I missed the whole lot.”
“How?” I ask.
“I was in the pub.” He sighs. “When it comes to questions about Dallas and Knots Landing, I’m lost.”
Happily, none of tonight’s questions touch on TV soaps. Which dance shares its name with the state capital of West Virginia? What is the full name of the current president of Cuba? The fox-sized Norwegian Lundehund gets its name because it used to retrieve what type of birds from their abodes? The answer to that last – puffin – is my sole unique contribution to The Dude Abides. No one else on the team knows it, and when Colin Cruickshank announces the answer, I want to rise from my seat and beat my chest, scattering Quavers everywhere. But this would not be in keeping with pub quiz protocol, which favours hush over hubris. “Excuse me, would you just haud yer wheest?” Colin implores one especially chatty table.
There are about 50 people taking part tonight. Apart from a table of young guys trying and failing to look up Beowulf on their smartphones (“Did he say Baywatch?”) the pub seems full of serious quizzers. The questions themselves are not enough for these people; between rounds, they offer up their own tasty nuggets of knowledge. “Did you know,” someone says, “that Steve Redgrave, Mo Farah, Chris Hoy and Roger Bannister were all born on the same date – March 23?”
In the end, The Dude Abides wins by three points, scoring 74 out of 87. But there is no sense of triumph as we are handed our prize – six bottles of cider. Too many errors were made for it to feel like a solid win. And why, in the sainted name of Magnus Magnusson, did we not write down “baldric” when asked what silk sash is worn to hold a sword? This is an important bit of pub quiz psychology. The pleasure is not in victory, it is in being able to retrieve a correct answer from one’s memory as smoothly and quickly as pulling open a well-oiled drawer. “Yes, there’s a very deep satisfaction in that,” says Melanie Beaumount. “It is almost sensual.”
Niall sips his pint. “Hmm,” he says. “I just retain a lot of shite.” «
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