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

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