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

Click to follow
The Independent Online

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."