Question: which formula is a more closely guarded secret than the recipe for Coca-Cola, more finely calibrated than the fuel ratios in a Nasa space shuttle, and more bitterly fought over than the last Smartie at the debating club dinner? Answer: the line-up for a Tuesday evening pub quiz team.
As any ringer dedicated to questions about the quotations of Bill Shankly c.1975 - 1981 will know by rote, some people thought that football was a matter of life and death; he could assure them it was much more serious than that. But pub quizzes make that level of fanatical dedication look like a Sunday afternoon kickaround in the park.
As the year-end approaches, the quiz season is reaching its climax, and in the pub nerves are becoming frayed. Have you got the right line-up? A winning team needs a sports nerd, a book fiend, a classicist and a gimp. It needs a person with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the stations on the London Underground. It is the last refuge of the 1970s children's television obsessive and a welcome home for the man who has memorised every single Christmas No.1 since 1954. It should represent high culture, low culture and I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!
But demographics are essential, too. There must be at least one person young enough to know her way around Second Life as if it were the back room of the pub. There should be another who remembers the Battle of Little Bighorn as if he'd been there. More importantly, they must agree on a leader. The holder of the answer sheet and the bearer of the pencil takes on a great responsibility; she must learn to read the faces of her team, and know how to spot a blagger. A headteacher, if she has conflict training, is often a canny choice.
As a by-product of the 21st-century information explosion, the pub quiz is a growth industry. In an era when any fact is immediately available on Wikipedia, it is good for our souls that some answers have to be fought for. And in the cold, dark run-up to Christmas, being the only team able to name the five football clubs whose names begin and end with the same letter seems like the best thing to have happened since the summer.
More happily, this is a truly democratic form of entertainment: in pubs from Archway to Aberdeen, regardless of age, colour or ability to drink five pints of Ordinary and still remember the capital of Peru, men and women come together to drink and talk bollocks and ask each other elaborately silly questions. At the Prince of Wales, Highgate, a team of, ahem, remarkably intelligent journalists regularly leads the pack until the beer round, before becoming too sozzled to think.
At the PEN quiz each November, where funds are raised for oppressed writers around the world, authors and intellectuals very nearly come to blows. One year, a well-known lady professor revealed yet another area of genius hitherto unknown to her admiring public when she correctly named every flavour of crisp in the bonus round, having remembered to play her joker. Grown men fainted in appreciation.
Meanwhile the idea that women are immune to the charms of a pub quiz is of course a myth. We relish a challenge, we love to be right, and the distant promise of free beer for the winners is something that we find dizzyingly exciting. In these straitened times, it is the best fun you can have for a pound a head. It is noble. It is fine. It is the smart answer to the credit crunch. Just don't ask me to hold the pencil.