Monday book: An unhealthy addiction to quizzes

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BRAIN MEN: A PASSION TO COMPETE

BY MARCUS BERKMANN, LITTLE, BROWN, pounds 14.99

"NAME THE dog that guarded gates of hell?" Eric the landlord would ask before getting your drink. Riddle him right, and he'd line you up for one of the pub's quiz teams. Depending on your political leanings, you would be in the Iron Heels or the Red Stars. Play would be University Challenge-style to an audience, and there was no conferring. You took your questions and lived with the consequences. For years. This was back in the Seventies, and it was tough up north. None of this soft southern huddling together, whispering "Samuel Plimsoll? Computerised Axial Tomography? 1848?".

Let's hope Marcus Berkmann doesn't get a question on the origins of pub quizzes, as he is under the illusion that they were born in the Eighties as Trivial Pursuit died. True, that's around the time they hit fashionable London, but they had been big in the North for years before.

You can see how Berkmann fell into error. Sucked into your own little corner of the quiz world, it's easy to lose the bigger picture. Every Tuesday finds him at the Prince of Wales in Highgate, answering questions on FA Cup winners, bones in the human body, Smartie colours and what have you.

Do not go there. Do not get a handful of mates together under a daft name and take on the challenge. Whole chunks of your life can disappear down that route.

We used to put out a team under the name The Cast Iron Shore. We were up against the formidable Side Show Bob and the more erratic Bijoux Patio At Rear but, often enough to get hooked, we would claw our way into the top four. We played in a pub rumoured to be used by Bob Dylan, but if he drank there on quiz nights no one would have noticed unless there was a question on his lyrics.

We had to pull out. When you find yourself memorising lists of past Oscar winners in the hope that a man on a bar stool with a microphone is going to ask you an Oscar question one wet Tuesday night, you know your life's out of gear. When you break out in applause because the next round is on assassins, it's time to stop.

Marcus Berkmann did not pull out. Hopelessly addicted, he turns up every Tuesday, has played in the Evening Standard Pub Quiz Challenge, has shone on Fifteen to One and, saddest of all, has broken a date "with a beautiful, intelligent woman" who had flown from Brussels for the weekend - so that he could be on a celebrity Fifteen to One with the likes of Austin Mitchell and Gyles Brandreth. From the childhood membership of the I-SPY club ("Tribal Fee one shilling, plus 4d postage to Big Chief I-SPY himself at Wigwam-by-the-Water, 4 Upper Thames Street, London, EC4") through the years of Magic Robot and Look and Learn to the purchase of Trivial Pursuit, Berkmann was inevitably heading towards the Tuesday night quiz.

All the behaviour patterns of the pub-quizzer are recorded. The jockeying for a table, the paranoia about opponents' trips to the bog ("have they got the Encyclopaedia Britannica in there?"), the restriction of team sizes ("each Tuesday seemed like a mini-reunion of old friends who enjoyed each others' company enormously. So we put a stop to that and they never came again").

Given the nature of the subject, it is rather difficult to find much human drama in this anoraky account of pullover behaviour. You don't find yourself caring much about how Berkmann's team do in inter-pub competitions. The fact that one is bad at anagrams while another is strong on the periodic table and that the newcomer Russell knew that KLM was established in 1919 isn't enough to establish a bond.

Counteracting all this, Berkmann has scattered some rather elegant quizzes throughout the book which I fear may have the effect of getting a few more hooked on the sorry business. He also has some excellent tips on regular quiz questions. The periodic table: if you didn't learn then, learn now. While you're there, how are you on poet laureates?

My best advice is: stay away from it. Hey, man, I could handle it. Did a bit, then I stopped it just like that - but Berkmann's a hopeless case. Read it for yourself.

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