The Blagger's Guide To...The Pen Quiz

London's literati gear up for the ultimate test

Fingers on buzzers: it's time, once again, for the annual PEN quiz, when writers are pitted against journalists and publishers in a test of their literary knowledge.

It's just for fun, of course: the main point of tomorrow's bash at the Royal Institute of British Architects, in central London, is to raise money for English PEN, a charity that campaigns for freedom of expression and supports writers in prison.

The quiz has become a major literary fixture since its inception 10 years ago, with Stephen Fry, John Humphrys and Kirsty Wark all having taken part. But PEN has been going much longer: this year marks English PEN's 90th anniversary. It was founded in 1921 by the writer Mrs CA Dawson Scott, right, as an occasional dining club, following on from the success of the Tomorrow Club. That was a dining club she had set up in 1917, "for tomorrow's writers", and numbered John Galsworthy among its members. The idea was to have a forum for writers to meet, talk, and listen to the occasional lecture. It met weekly in London's Long Acre, and Mrs Scott invited "starving men" (and the occasional woman), and literary agents who might commission them.

PEN has always been an international club. It took the format of the Tomorrow Club, but aimed to create a common meeting ground for writers in all countries. Galsworthy became the president and chair and, by 1923, there were PEN centres in 11 countries. Early members included Joseph Conrad, George Bernard Shaw and HG Wells. Today, PEN has 141 centres in 99 countries, and acts as a forceful voice in helping writers fight censorship. The Writers in Prisons Committee was set up in 1960 and uses letter-writing and other campaigning methods to put pressure on authorities who detain writers for their work. It used to be chaired by the IoS columinst Joan Smith.

Some PEN members have railed against the quiz, complaining that its frivolity detracts from the serious nature of PEN's work. But it raises a significant amount of money. In 2002, the biographer and then PEN president Victoria Glendinning announced a programme of modernisation. New employees were brought in and new committees created. But the old guard complained, and matters were made worse by a proposal to apply for charitable status, which, it was thought, could have curbed PEN's campaigns. At one meeting, the academic Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, left, allegedly "got down on his knees, banged his fist on a table and begged those present to accept charitable status". It turned out that PEN wouldn't be limited – charities are only banned from attempting to topple a foreign government.

The quiz has occasionally been the source of crossed words. In 2003, teams were asked "Which Tory leader before IDS was the last never to face a General Election?" The answer was given as Austen Chamberlain, when the correct answer is, of course, Neville Chamberlain. The Sunday Telegraph's team, which included its famously brainy late theatre critic John Gross, won, and Jon Snow, who set the questions, was roundly chastised.

Suspicion lingered over The Times's victory in 2004, as they won thanks to a super-clever graduate trainee. According to one commentator, his performance "was so flawless that even his team-mates found it eerie". The Observer's team under Roger Alton had just one order – to beat The Guardian, their sister paper. Alas, they drew.

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