Knowing all the answers in Britain

I can’t continue to write about life on this strange island without talking about the quiz.

No, I’m not talking about the test I had to take in order to stay here. That was a test. If you judge it on length it might have passed for a quiz, but it had too much riding on it. What I’m talking about is the British addiction to quizzes in general.

Am I using the word addiction loosely? No, your honor, I am not. I maintain that the population of this country (which is spread over all of one island and part of another, so I was using the word island loosely in my first sentence) is heavily dependent on the quiz and incapable of going for more than a week without one. This doesn’t apply to every individual, but if we take the population as a whole, addiction isn’t too strong a word.

Chairs for rent, facing the beach. Swanage.

Irrelevant photo: chairs for rent, facing the beach in Swanage

I submit:

Exhibit A: the pub quiz. These are held for entertainment while the participants are in varying stages of inebriation. Pubs that hold them schedule them weekly, indicating that problems would arise if the time between them is extended beyond that interval.

Exhibit B: multiple Radio 4 quiz shows, some of which make fun of quiz shows (see, for example, Exhibit B.1, I haven’t a clue) but are still quiz shows. These also repeat at seven-day intervals and give social approval to quiz addiction.

Exhibit C: village fundraising quiz nights. Yes, people pay money to show up and take a quiz. These are social events, where people compete in teams, reinforcing each other’s addiction. They are held at random intervals, but the social aspect makes them insidious.

And here we’ll take a break from court and gossip in the hall, where I can tell you that I was once asked if I’d pay a pound for a quiz supporting a local folk music group. After a blank moment during which my brain argued about whether I should say “No, I hate quizzes” or buy one and use it for scratch paper, I compromised by saying I’d pay a pound for the privilege of not participating. Everyone went away happy.

I think.

If you’re British, none of this (except maybe my shock and horror over it—and, yeah, the word addiction) is news to you. Of course you think quizzes are entertainment. But if you’re not British—or at least if you’re American, since I’m not all that sure where the rest of the world stands on this earthshaking issue—you’re thinking, They pay money to do what? So let me repeat: The quiz is a form of entertainment in Britain.

But let’s drop the addiction argument, since I only threw it in to justify organizing my examples into exhibits and write “your honor.” We all know an argument like that will fall apart if it’s left out in the rain. And it does rain a lot here.

I have a hard time finding the fun in a quiz. They’re something I escaped when I got out of school—those moments of Quick, prove you finished the reading and understood it. 

Wild Thing, like me, has trouble figuring out how this is fun, but unlike me she has a phenomenal memory. I’ve come to think of her as my external hard drive. She should do well on them. But a fall-back category of quiz questions involves British pop culture circa, let’s say, 1970. Or whenever. It depends on the age of the person who puts the quiz together—and if the quiz-maker’s playing fair, on the age of the audience. This is stuff Wild Thing can’t possibly know. We weren’t here then.

Every so often, she’ll give the person who put the quiz together a hard time about discriminating against Americans. This is done in fun, although (as the idea that the quiz is entertainment proves) fun is in the eye of the beholder. I don’t know that it’s always heard as a joke. And I don’t know that there isn’t a sharp edge lurking under the joke’s padding.

Talking about what I don’t know may not be a bad place to end a post on quizzes, because they have a way of reminding me what vast fields of knowledge lie beyond my horizons. There’s so much stuff I don’t know. Some of that is a problem, either often or occasionally, but the stuff I can’t answer on the (very few) quizzes I’ve participated in has never yet been anything I care about not knowing.

I understand that not everyone cares about the same things. For some reason—damn, the world’s a baffling place—nobody’s brain is a replica of mine, and the things our brains hold onto and value vary. Why should we score ourselves or let other people score us according to some standard that isn’t ours?

Sorry, that sounded way more serious than I expected. Take it lightly, folks. It won’t be on life’s final exam, and life’s final exam won’t be graded anyway.

89 thoughts on “Knowing all the answers in Britain

  1. And woe betide you if you happen to be in a pub when a quiz is taking place, but you do not actually partake in the quiz. Any attempt at non-quiz related conversation will be hushed out of existence and getting served at the bar becomes quite the hostile experience. A quiz is, apparently, very serious business.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. you are right about the addiction thing… some people go to a pub quiz every week religiously and take it very seriously…there are leagues and everything!

    I can take or leave them…they are amusing once in a while mind you :-)

    I think part of the difference is (another) one of language…in the US i believe a quiz is that thing that happens in class to test knowledge of a subject and is therefore not pleasant.

    In the UK those things are referred to as tests and the word quiz is reserved for things that are just for fun…unless that is you get into the crazy leagues…

    Liked by 2 people

      • I think the semantic argument is quite right. In South Africa and certainly in the village where we live, there is a quiz night at least once a month and during winter, sometimes twice. One of the quiz masters (and it always seems to be a him), is a former London policeman.

        But I digress.

        At school we had tests and exams – they were serious. We also had the occasional quiz and these were usually fun ways of revising quite boring work – must hark back to the British thing…. So the suggestion that one’s association with word “quiz” influences how we feel about the pastime does make sense. To me, anyway.

        From my perspective, quizzes are simply another format for that other game, Trivial Pursuit!

        Liked by 2 people

    • So I read this post, and I wasn’t going to comment, but I have difficulty keeping my mouth shut about anything, so here goes:

      These “quizzes”—yes, that word absolutely conjures up in my mind sharpened Number Two pencils and Madame Perrault flunking me on the weekly French vocab test back in high school the morning after the night I got drunk for the very first time.

      Are these “quizzes” what we call here in the US trivia nights? Like you go to a bar (yes, and some folks are organized in teams) and you drink and the host asks questions like, “In what three years were the Olympic Games suspended?” and people shout and laugh and order more drinks. There are prizes and stuff.

      Or is it more like what I fear: you go to a bar pub and they pass out pieces of paper and pencils and demand, in French, that you list all the reflexive verbs covered in the chapter and, needless to say, there are absolutely no prizes?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hahahaha…well written Ellen, your post was certainly entertaining, mirth making even. I think the whole point about quizzes, particularly pub quizzes, is the desire of the participants to win the quiz, not just to be the winner/winning team, but to develop the smug look when you have won … just so you can look down your nose at the peons who failed to better your superior knowledge. I never have got to wear the ‘smug’ look, probably never will. If I enter the quiz there will always be a team called, ‘The Brainiacs’, the ‘Academicals’ or simply the ‘Smug Bastards’…… confidence destroyed, lets have another pint then !!!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Oh boy, I spent a whole summer in Britain and never ran into this. Must be newish. Glad for it as I don’t like these types of things. But I imagine the more people drink the funnier it gets. Thank you for enlightening me. Note to self: avoid pubs even more than usual! :-D

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A great article made me laugh. you shouldn’t knock radio 4 quiz though I think you can be deported for that. I avoid pub quizzes as well, being a history graduate people expect me to know the history of the world when I fact know details about two or three very narrow periods which rarely come up in a quiz.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I didn’t realize quizzes were such a British thing. Now I think of it though, I’ve not seen a single non-TV quiz since I’ve been in America. I haven’t seen a TV one either but I know they exist. As evidence for your theory, my husband and I both love general knowledge quizzes. It doesn’t even have to be competitive or for a prize: we just enjoy being quizzed for the merry heck of it. We loved watching Mastermind to see if we could attain a higher score than the contestants. The highlight of New Year celebrations for me were all the end of the year quizzes. I think we might just be addicted to trivia.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hiya,

    Loved your quiz article, mainly because we love quizzes. Each week in our little town of Kerikeri, 20 miles away from us, a quiz is held by the RSA Club – a veterans’ organisation – to which we belong. Perhaps 100 contestants take part in groups of from 2 to 8 and give our teams funny, odd or rude names as way of identification and, sometimes, blustering.

    We are a family team consisting of our son, his wife and child and both pairs of parents. Therefore, we make a good balance of things Brit and things Kiwi. The quiz masters relish testing our boundaries of almost endless knowledge on history, geography and science. Other topics are films and tv, music (invariably popular culture), arts and literature and general knowledge. But the essential ingredients of victory in the quiz depend upon two extraneous subjects which award high points for early correct answers. These are designed to be difficult but, like any other element of the quiz, are only difficult if you do not know the answer!

    A great deal of friendly, competitive banter takes place among the teams. Together with the odd glass of gin and tonic, it makes for a sometimes rewarding and sometimes frustrating evening. We invariably dwell on the quiz on our long drive back to the bush. Our biggest, yet smallest, critic is our ten year-old granddaughter who gives us hell if we do not win.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Funny stuff! You almost make the drudgery of England sound interesting. :p

    Seriously (but just for a moment), I’ve read in other places that the British and the Americans are one people divided by a common language. Perhaps Churchill said that, I’m not sure. In any case, taking quizzes for fun strikes me as very British or very nerdish or both. Are there nerds in the UK?

    Thank you for your blog. It’s very entertaining and informative. AND FUNNY!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the thanks. As far as nerds go, I’d take a wild and irresponsible guess that the numbers in the US and UK and roughly the same (as a proportion of the population). Adding that bit in parentheses makes that sound scientific, doesn’t it? Almost as if I knew something.

      I should add, though, that I don’t think of the country as drudgeful. Really. It’s an amazing place.


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  10. I’ve always liked trivia games, but *only* if I know the answers or, at least, *almost* know the answers. I can’t imagine it being fun if the questions and/or answers are unrecognizable. I’d pay to pass, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. But the pub quiz is a competition. If you win, you get a prize. It might be money but usually it is tokens for alcohol. The pub landlord makes money from the sale of booze, not the quiz entry fees.

    DOI: I was first reserve on TV University Challenge in 1972 and the epitome of my pub quiz career was second prize (free pint of beer).


    • I hate to admit this, but I can’t remember anything about “Wait, wait, don’t tell me” except the title. But I think so

      Radio 4 and BBC TV have several funny quizzes, some of them focused on current events, some so far off the wall that I can’t figure out how they score them, although they do seem to. Maybe they make up the scores. Why not?


  12. I must admit taking a quiz together from the Sunday paper has become a tradition for our family lunches. We complete it jointly to see how “smart” we are together. We are happy if we get 60%!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I’m actually a quiz master (but only on Boxing Day) and I love to put questions together and throw in a few trick ones. The family (and friends) seem to enjoy the Boxing Day quiz and it is now a regular event of our Christmas. I’m not sure what they would do if I stood up one day in November and announce “I’m not doing the quiz this year). Maybe I should give it a go?

    Liked by 1 person

  14. You’re absolutely right about our addiction to quizzes, Ellen. Every city, town and village seems to have them in pubs and community halls. Perhaps it is just the competitive spirit, but I think it’s also a way of getting people involved in their communities – the “let’s all get together, and get to know each other” thing. Bear in mind that the average Brit is a reserved being who keeps to him/herself and generally doesn’t interact too well with strangers. The “Great British Quiz” is a way of breaking down barriers. Of course, that could all well be construed as nonesense, and really the quiz is about having a drink and showing off how clever one is! Quizzes are also popular in families – all a bit of fun and a way of passing time. I suppose we can’t get away from the fact that, yes, we Brits are addicted to quizzes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve been reading Watching the English, by an English anthropologist (I’ll write about it eventually–it’s wonderful), and she agrees with you about patterned activities like quizzes being useful in a shy culture (that’s not her phrase; she puts it better). They break down barriers and allow people to mix. Great book, and highly readable.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ll look forward to reading your post, Ellen. I’ve always known we English are a funny lot. I think you’ll find this shyness/reserve to be more marked in the South of England. Northern communities are generally more friendly and sociable – with a long history of social clubs and so on (old mining and manufacturing communities, you see.) Mind you, as a northerner myself, I could well be a little biased here. :D I’ll also look out for that book.

        Liked by 1 person

        • That same difference struck Wild Thing when we were in York. She’s from Texas and her take on northerners here was that they’re more like southerners in the US–friendlier, more relaxed about people, less closed off. So if two people’s enough of a sample for us to judge by, you’re onto something.

          Liked by 1 person

  15. So first I was just like hysterically laughing like ‘wow, British people are f*cking weird’. But then the post got more serious and I found myself relating, especially when it came to the part about how there’s so much more to know and you can’t possibly pack all that into your brain since I often find myself unreasonably stressing about not being able to accomplish such an impossible feat. The ending was nice though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The older I get, the more firmly I believe that we’re all fucking weird–the entire human race. Mind you, I like us, but we are strange, strange creatures. I wouldn’t say the British are any stranger than the Americans, just less familiar (to me, and to you). They sometimes think we’re pretty weird, and they make just as good a case.


      • You have a point, we’re all some insane creatures just running in circles chasing our tails and thinking we actually have some form of power in the grand scheme of things. Less familiar would be more strange, but that’s subjective, so I see what you mean. Indeed they do, and the things we think are weird about them, they think are weird about us.

        Liked by 1 person

  16. Everything from your posts to the comments that follow are holding me captive.
    It’s taken hours of arresting reading just to reach this comment box – my curse for being a latecomer to Blogging! I will constantly be catching up like that guy pushing the rock up the hill! But I digress and I really need to get back to writing my mystery book – but I’m finding myself being pulled like tiny metal sprinkles to a magnet into opening the link of Dan Antion’s Saturday post. Arrrrgh!
    PS Having been a teacher for years, constantly making and correcting tests, I find no recreational value, whatsoever, in quizzes. Now that I’m happily retired, you can’t pay me enough to take a quiz!


  17. For some reason, this post reminded me of stupid games I’ve played at bridal and baby showers. I couldn’t believe that I had to take a trivia quiz at someone’s 50th anniversary party. Then people joke about how little they know. It’s all a little strange.

    Liked by 1 person

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