John Walsh: If I know the right answer, please don't overrule me


Related Topics

On Monday, I went to the PEN Media quiz in London, for an evening of strenuous showing-off among the sparkling intellects of the British journalistic and book-publishing fraternity. The quiz has been going for 10 years; its point is to raise money for PEN in its quest to defend the rights of persecuted writers worldwide.

Its secondary function is to set rival newspapers and publishers at each others' throats: teams are sent out to battle, with their editors' words ringing in their ears: "I don't care how well or badly we do, just as long as we're miles ahead of the Guardian/Telegraph/Times, got that?"

Strange to report, the quiz questions aren't always at the cutting edge of cultural history; your knowledge of quantum physics, postmodernism or the key works of Marcus Aurelius will not help a jot when you're asked who was on the cover of OK! magazine for seven consecutive weeks in 2009 (it was Jade Goody). Being fabulously well-read and well-travelled won't help you recall (if you ever knew) that the lightsabers of the villains in Star Wars glow red.

Yes, the quiz is educational, but only if you feel it's worth knowing that John Steinbeck's dog was called Charley, or that the unusual detail in the Santa Claus costume once worn by Edward Heath was not that it had an emergency back flap, but that it was blue.

The quiz has a third important function, however: to establish who is boss. You can see it when two members of a team compete, not to answer more questions than each other, but subtly to subvert each other. Beside me, I had a famous comedian, a world-champion sneerer. Whenever I answered a question, he would (without offering any answer of his own) look pityingly and say "No, no. It can't be that. I don't think so."

The chap inscribing the answers would wait as the famous comedian figuratively turned his thumb down. Had he an alternative? No, but he definitely knew it couldn't be that. Who played young David Copperfield in the 1999 BBC TV series? Daniel Radcliffe, I said. No, no, said the famous comedian, laughing at my stupidity, he'd have been far too young. Whose final film project, before he died, was to film Conrad's Nostromo? David Lean, I said. "No, no, no, goodness me, no," said the FC, wiping tears of mirth from his cheeks, "Lean was never a Conrad fan."

It went on like that. Others in our team made suggestions but, without a captain to cast a deciding vote, we were all slaves to my neighbour's pooh-poohing confidence and determination to contradict.

When our compere, Jim Naughtie, from Radio 4's Today show, read out the correct answers, I found I'd been right several times – right but countermanded. "Well done," said the famous comedian to me at the end, "You did well. I'm sorry I had to overrule you." Had to overrule you? It was hard not to clobber him with a water carafe. But it just goes to show: media encounters such as this aren't displays of knowledge at all; they're displays of plausibility, and the power of celebrity.

We all carry a little touch of greatness with us

A 1960s social psychologist called Stanley Milgram discovered that, thanks to our restless socialising, there were only 5.2 people between you and almost every other person in the world – an idea enshrined in the John Guare book Six Degrees of Separation.

Now researchers into Facebook's 721m users have concluded that, what with mutual friendships and shared websites, there are now only four introductions between everyone, from the King of Swaziland to the busker on the Moscow subway.

I don't buy these findings, because Facebook isn't about real meetings. I prefer the Molecular Theory of Connection, in which every hand you shake contains molecules of everybody its owner ever shook hands with. When Barry Humphries met Arthur Miller, "I could only think," he said, "that this was the hand that had once cupped the breasts of Marilyn Monroe."

In that spirit I'm convinced that, because I once clasped the palm of Dame Ninette de Valois, who lunched with Yeats in 1925, I have traces of Yeats on me. Because I shook hands with Andrew Motion last week, I now carry bits of Ted Hughes (and therefore Sylvia Plath) on me. I am a walking zoo of Class A literary bacteria. So it's annoying to reflect on what James Joyce said when a fan asked, "May I kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses?" "No you can't," said Joyce. "It did a lot of other things as well."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform