Question 1, for two points: Where is the headquarters of the Dyslexia Research Trust? Question 2, one point for each part of your answer: How many arms and how many hearts does an octopus have? Question 3: Which is further west, Edinburgh or Bristol?
I don’t know about you, but I’ve become quietly obsessed with questions like this over the last few weeks. An awful lot of us have been passing our evenings Zooming in to quizzes organised by friends or family or outside organisations. And some of the biggest events have attracted huge numbers of people.
A Virtual Pub Quiz co-hosted by Stephen ‘QI’ Fry earlier this month raised £140,000 for Alzheimer’s Research UK. The quiz created such a stir that Stephen is coming back to host the whole thing himself on Friday 22 May, with an eye on the Guinness World Record for a live-streamed YouTube quiz, which currently stands at 182,513 participants.
So where has this sudden enthusiasm for quizzes come from?
It’s obviously part of our reaction to the special circumstances of the Covid-19 lockdown, but I’m wondering whether it’s partly caused by the sense that our normal sources of entertainment have let us down. Live sport is mostly out of the question (though the Bundesliga matches, played in echoing, empty stadiums last weekend, provided a quick fix for those who craved it). Many households I know spent the first few weeks of isolation gorging and bingewatching their way through all their favourite TV series. But most people seem to have had enough of that now. How many times can you watch every episode of Friends or Game of Thrones before you start feeling your life is slipping away from you?
What seems to be missing is novelty, surprises, unpredictability – the stimulus of the unknown. A good quiz feeds that hunger. You get a double buzz, first from the ingenuity and unexpectedness of the questions and then from the satisfying closure of the answers, whether you got them right or not.
Take Question 1 above. No-one is likely to know where the Dyslexia Research Trust is based, but when it is revealed, the correct answer, “Reading”, turns out to be delightfully apt.
The octopus question is pleasing, too, because it teaches you something that’s stunningly unlikely. Eight arms you knew. But three hearts? How weird is that? What kind of a creature needs three hearts? Sounds greedy, doesn’t it? I suppose it’s easy enough to guess that Edinburgh is further west than Bristol, because otherwise no-one would ask the question, but it’s still counterintuitive enough to get most of us grabbing for the nearest map.
These little titbits of general knowledge are not going to change our lives. We’ll probably never even think of them again. But they are an important reminder of the pleasure our playful, inquiring minds get from this sort of thing. Humans enjoy quirkiness and variety. Surprises – even trivial ones – pique our curiosity and stimulate the brain. That’s how we are.
And that’s why nothing is ever wasted. If you, like many people who’ve contacted us recently, have been using the long period of lockdown to start thinking about the book you’ve always meant to write, we’ve got some advice for you.
Don’t throw away any of your notes. Keep everything you’ve jotted down, even if it seems wildly irrelevant just now. Keep all those stories, quotes, jokes and news cuttings. Even if what you’re writing about is deadly serious, you’ll always get to a point, sooner or later, where you’ll want to lift the mood or give your reader some light relief. Nobody wants to read 300 pages of unrelieved solemnity, and you may even find yourself working in some oddball fact you’ve picked up from an online quiz. That’s your excuse, see? You were working. It was research. Not just enjoying yourself, but preparing to write your book.
Now where was I? Ah, yes. How many calories are there in a regular Big Mac?
Ian Shircore’s latest book, So Brightly at the Last: Clive James and the Passion for Poetry, was published in November 2019 by RedDoor Press