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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions