Gail Trimble can press a buzzer with alarming speed but, more importantly, she has a head full of a rich panoply of general knowledge that ranges across literature, languages, botany, and mathematical puzzles.
In all the decades University Challenge has been testing the wits of the nation’s undergraduates, old hands are saying there has never been a contestant to match her. Last night, she led her team, Corpus Christi College, to victory over Manchester University in the final of the six-month long general knowledge quiz show. The result was quite close, by the standards of Corpus Christi, in that Manchester managed to chalk up a score of 190 to Corpus Christi’s 275.
It was the first time in the contest that the little Oxford college, which houses only 400 students, had failed to achieve a three- figure win. This time, at least, their opponents held them down to just seven “starter” questions, making it less of an embarrassingly one-sided contest than Corpus Christi’s appearance against Exeter University, which produced the most decisive win the show has seen since 1971.
Corpus Christi’s success was almost entirely down to their captain, who has scored more points than her three teammates put together. She has been nicknamed the new Stephen Fry, but that may be doing her an injustice. Fry is clever, of course – but could he, without warning and without hesitation, answer questions ranging from what does Mathilda in a poem by Hilaire Belloc have in common with Miss Havisham, in the Charles Dickens novel Great Expectations, to a mathematical puzzle about the difference between 10 metres squared and 10 square metres? Because Ms Trimble, a 26-year-old classicist, did.
Yesterday, Ms Trimble declared herself bemused by her new-found status as a sex symbol, a status allotted to her by some – but by no means all – of the bloggers who have commented about her on the web.
“I’m glad people are being nice about me rather than nasty,” she told Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. But she added: “I very much think this would not be happening if I was a man. People would not feel it necessary to comment on my looks so much.”
She attributed the span of her knowledge to a stimulating childhood in a household filled with books, and to her “amazingly supportive” parents, who are both scientists, from Walton-on-Thames, in Surrey.
Ms Trimble was educated at a fee-paying school, Lady Eleanor Holles in Hampton, Middlesex, where she achieved 11 GCSEs – 10 at A* and one A – and four A-levels in Latin, Greek, English Literature and Maths – all grade A.
In her “undergraduate profile” on the Oxford University website, she is lyrical about the pleasures of learning Classics. “The best academic experiences tend to be completely unexpected – lectures on Plato’s Symposium on Monday afternoons in the summer, given in a remote room somewhere in the orchards in Worcester, where we would hear brilliant thoughts on Plato as the sun streamed in and ducks walked past the window,” she wrote.
On the radio yesterday, she confessed to gaps in her general knowledge that included any questions on biology or sport. When challenged with a few pub quiz questions by a tabloid newspaper, she had to admit she could not name the manager of Chelsea FC, the winner of Celebrity Big Brother, nor even the British lead actor in Slumdog Millionaire. (The answers, for those who also do not know, are Guus Hiddink, Ulrika Jonsson, and Dev Patel.) By contrast, on hearing Jeremy Paxman read out a list of names, she instantly recognised them as characters from the works of Jane Austen.
Fingers on the buzzers: Questions from last night's final
*1: What everyday concept did Iris Murdoch describe as “… the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real”?
*2: To what set of attested languages, i.e. those of the Germanic, Slavic, Romance and other families, do the initial letters P.I.E. refer?
*3: If a tap leaks a millilitre of water every second, how many 10-litre buckets will it fill completely in a day?
*4: Giving its name to an early form of capacitor, which city to the south-west of Amsterdam is home to The Netherlands’ oldest university, founded in 1575?
*5: Which of Shakespeare's plays is the only one to be set in Vienna and concerns the city’s Duke adopting a disguise in order to observe the actions of his subjects, including his deputy Angelo?
*6: A taco terrier is a cross between a toy fox terrier and which other breed of dog, originating in a country of Latin America?
*7: Which French obstetrician, who died in 1957, gave his name to a method of childbirth involving exercises and breathing control designed to give pain relief without drugs?
1: Love (in the essay: ‘The Sublime and the Good’, 1959)
3: Eight (8.64)
4: Leiden (the leyden jar)
5: Measure for Measure
6: Chihuahua (from Mexico)
7: Fernand Lamaze (the Lamaze technique)