Victoria Summerley: Town Life

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The Independent Online

It's the season of the School Quiz. Parents nationwide are swotting up on British prime ministers, Premiership history or 1980s pop music, depending on the school, the quiz and their own personal interests.

At both the primary and secondary schools my children have attended, the annual quiz is one of the PTA calendar's most popular events. In London, I think, these activities have an added poignancy. They help foster a sense of community in lives hedged about by long hours and tedious commutes across the big, crowded city. And for harassed parents trying to steer their children through the nightmare of London secondary school entrance or GCSEs, it is also a bit of light relief. It can't just be coincidence that they are usually held early in March, just when the secondary school places are posted or you're booking a remedial Easter revision course in GCSE chemistry.

Unlike school fetes, jumble sales or other fundraising events, the quiz requires minimum effort from the participants. You don't even have to dress up. Just bring some food, drink lots of wine and get your brain in gear. (OK, combining the last two might prove a bit tricky.) A couple I know, both senior BBC executives, look forward to their children's school quiz with all the enthusiasm and vigour they bring to taking the Beeb into the digital age or planning the Radio One Big Weekend. Probably more, in fact.

At my children's secondary school, Emanuel, the school quiz has been raised to the level of high art. There is always a handful of pupil teams, usually composed of super-bright, confident sixth-formers with a nice line in subversive wit. There are prizes for the best-decorated table. (One memorable entry last year was a model of Battersea Power Station.) There is a computerised scoreboard under the expert supervision of Miss Marmion, my daughter's maths teacher. And there is the quizmaster, Mr Driver.

Every school should have its own version of Mr Driver, a Yorkshireman who is not only a member of the history department but also resident master of ceremonies. When Mr Driver went into teaching, the world of stand-up comedy lost a potential star, but Emanuel gained a compere who could probably make opening a paper bag seem entertaining, let alone the annual tug-of-war.

For a divinity graduate, he has a rather wicked sense of humour and enlivens proceedings by making rude remarks about members of the audience, particularly the staff, who at Emanuel seem very conscientious about supporting school events. His stream of wisecracks - "Oh, Mr Benn's sharpening his pencil. There's not much lead in it, but he's sharpening it anyway" - not only amuse but make those of us who are over, oh, let's say 30, feel as if we're giggling, carefree fourth-formers again.

And there's nothing quite so gratifying to a group of stressed-out parents, still smarting from their sons' and daughters' appalling mock GCSE results, as seeing the head of the sixth form have his answer ruled out of order. ("Yes, I know Lord Rees was a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr Marriott, but he died in 2006, not 2005, and the answer I was looking for was Mo Mowlam. And only someone as old as you would remember Merlyn-Rees anyway.")

Our enthusiasm astonishes my children. "Honestly, Mum," said my daughter grumpily, "you wouldn't find school nearly so much fun if you had to do homework and take exams and stuff." Suggestions that they might get a team together one year are met with screams of horror and shrieks of "Don't even...!" But if they were sceptical about our enjoyment,our prowess amazed them.

So how did we get on? Well, we, erm, won. For, erm, the second year running. (You didn't expect anything less from a team that included an Independent journalist, did you?) So please bear with me while I thank my team-mates Sandra, Rahul, John, Janet and my husband - even if he did insist on playing the joker on the wrong round - for a very enjoyable evening. And I hope this provides my children with incontrovertible, documentary evidence that I do at least have half a brain.

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