A year-long trivial pursuit for the over-educated

John Walsh finds a small, but most determined, cabal of puzzle fanatics

TODAY SEES a hot event in Literary Quiz Land. On to 500 welcome mats all over the nation will plop 500 envelopes containing the newest instalment of the longest-running and most difficult literary competition in the world: Nemo's Almanac, now in its 108th year

A modest, severe, 32-page booklet with a red cover containing the Questions, a reminder of the Rules, the Answers to last year's Nemo, the list of 1998 winners and some concluding Remarks by the quiz-setter, it has as its first striking feature the quantity of white space. The quotations are grouped by theme (unicorn poems, rain poems, poems starting: "There was a time...") and ranged by month, six a month, each page of quotations faced by a blank page, to be gradually, slowly filled up with names of poets, novelists, dramatists and essayists and the works from which the quotations come. The dogged struggle to track down their provenance will occupy literary sleuths for a whole year, until they're put out of their misery in September 1999.

The quiz is excruciatingly difficult. There are 72 quotations (73 if you count the one on the cover) and even the smugly well-read will feel as if they've been opening the wrong books all their lives. Hardly anybody ever gets all the answers right. Out of a possible total of 730 points (10 for each full chapter-and-verse answer) last year's winners could reach only the high 600s. Top score was 674 from Nancy, Lady Henley, a brilliant but low-profile aristocratic polymath living in Cerne Abbas who has won so often that she is currently ineligible for any prize. Instead the crown and bays went to Allan Hollinghurst and Francis Wyndham, with 658 points - the prize-winning novelist and literary journalist submit entries as a team. Second was DJW Williams, an academic. And third was the, possibly pseudonymous, G Ingli James, who, according to rumour, treats the quiz as a full-time job, if not a profession. All these names recur constantly in any conversations about Nemo.

This year's winners are Hollinghurst and Wyndham (but they're ineligible, since they won last year), Williams and Ingli James. Lady Henley is having an off-year, trailing at joint ninth. Most responders are in the winners' list each year, at about the same ranking. Remarkably they've never met en masse for a Nemo party, though a previous editor, the Oxford don and poet John Fuller, tried to organise a centenary thrash. The best English traditions of gifted amateurism and discreet obsession are all to be found.

The quiz is now run by Gerard Benson, 67, a Bradford-based writer who performs with the Barrow Poets and chooses the Poems on the Underground. He is only the almanac's seventh editor-cum-quiz-setter in 108 years. Before him, Allan Hollinghurst took over from John Fuller, who inherited it from a Stow-on-the-Wold bookshop owner, Katherine Watson... and so on back to the Victorian governess who started the whole thing as a test for her bookish charges.

Nemo's Almanac is not endowed by any grant or Arts Council bursary. It's a labour of love that passes from one individual to the next. Mr Benson finances it himself, and sells it by post at pounds 2 a hit, and keeps the profit - perhaps pounds 500.

"Of course, you can include some obscure writers," he says, "But there are many names from the canon, too. I think you'll find a dozen or 18 writers who'd be on anyone's A-list of famous poets and novelists. One year, one of my predecessors didn't make the questions sufficiently difficult, and people were getting everything right and handing them in by Christmas." He sounded shocked. "This year the most difficult writer to get was Archibald McLeish, followed by Sylvia Townsend Warner and Stephen Leacock. I was surprised how unfamiliar people were with Stephen Leacock."

So fanatical do the Nemo brigade become that ad hoc cabals of quotation- swappers meet to offer each other a "3 March" (from Richard Jefferies's Wild Life in a Southern County) in return for a "4 April" (Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journal, 30 January 1802). Even Lady Henley is not above a little horse-trading. Jonathan Barker, who used to run the Arts Council Poetry Library, with its quotation-tracing service, refused to help Nemo-chasers' mad-eyed sleuthing, which threatens to inconvenience genuine poem-seekers. Quizzers were known to offer Mr Barker bottles of Scotch, and no questions asked, for the answer to "1 June" (HG Wells's The History of Mr Polly). Helen Gardner, the Oxford English don and champion of the metaphysical poets, went mad looking for clues. She ended her life convinced that the almanac was communicating with her in code. Others have employed research students; while Sir Charles Clay, the almanac's most devoted lifelong fan, died at 96 saying: "I've just found 2 October..."

Write off for this 32 pages of blissful torture to: Gerard Benson, 46 Ashwell Road, Manningham, Bradford BD8 9DU. `Nemo's Almanac' costs pounds 2 (inc p+p), and that's not a misprint

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week