The Perfect Pub Quiz?

Have you ever read this, George Orwell’s famous little essay on his perfect London pub, with its open fire, stout on tap, bar snacks, lack of music, glasses with handles, where everybody knows your name (hang on, doesn’t he mean Boston bar …)? One suspects that Orwell might not have approved wholeheartedly of that more recently developed mainstay of the British pub, ye olde pubbe quizze.

But then, what of Orwell’s Moon Under Water? How perfect is it really? It sounds rather nice, indeed reminds me of some very cosy pubs I’ve been to (Holly Bush in Hampstead, say, at least as I remember it from a few years ago) but, then again,  by general standards, I am a pubby person. I mainly drink ale, like a chat in a comfy seat, a game of bar billiards, some pork crackling. It’s up my street (quiet backstreet, no doubt). But, you know, it’s a little prescriptive, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s great if a pub has a quality jukebox or playlist, if it’s got a few quiz machines, if it’s showing the football, if it has a full lunch and dinner menu, sometimes, heaven forbid, I want to drink a couple of bottles of that vulgar lager stuff. It varies.

And lots of people aren’t “pubby” in the traditional sense at all, of course. Arguably, Orwell’s idyll is only remotely close to being an idyll for a pretty narrow section of society.

So, I’ve read quite a lot of articles over the last few years – as the fashion for our noble art form increases – by people talking about what makes the perfect pub quiz or perfect pub quiz question. “A great quiz question should be …” … it’s a little prescriptive itself, isn’t it? The bland and the facile, these are the main enemies (notwithstanding the ambiguous and the plain wrong, of course!). Even though I’ve written 10s of 1000s of questions, many of which I’m very pleased with, I can read these articles and question myself. Am I working hard enough to eliminate mediocrity from my question-writing process, to make each question a little event in itself? Gosh, this question writing is mentally exhausting.

But, I suppose, my point is, if one fills one’s quiz with quality, finely wrought questions, it might get a little exhausting for the participants too. I’ve said this before but, the more and more years I spend in the quiz business, the more sure I am that there is a place for the supposedly facile and bland (though not the ambiguous and the plain wrong).

Just as many people aren’t pubby and won’t fall in love with Orwell’s dimly lit, open-fired, ale-serving enclave, so many people aren’t quizzy. Certainly not at the quizzes I run. That doesn’t mean they’re anti-quiz or don’t sometimes enjoy a good quiz (dealing with those is a different matter), but let’s not forget it’s quite a narrow strand of us whose quiz idyll is ingenious brainteaser after brainteaser.  Quite often I’ve come up with a question I think is a little marvel, tested it on a “layperson” and been met with indifference and mild irritation at how clever I think I’m trying to be. If I test that question on one of my quizzy friends or colleagues, I’m more likely (though not guaranteed!) to get just the response I was hoping for. Doesn’t mean it’s a bad question one way or a great question the other.

Sometimes, for the right crowd, I can run a fiercely “quizzy” (sorry for my overuse of the adjective quizzy, but you know what I mean, don’t you?) quiz all the way through, and that’s perfect, but sometimes, a well-paced, well-judged quiz involves highs and lulls, testers and gimmes, quiet conversation and loud music, lukewarm ale and cold lager.

Let’s not forget, pub lovers and quiz lovers, where George Orwell’s big ideas got us. “Big Brother” led to an interesting social experiment of a TV show called ‘Big Brother’ which became vastly successful and led to a monstrous televisual beast called ‘Big Brother’. ‘The Moon Under Water’ led to a chain which attempted to fulfil the ideas of the perfect British pub, with many of its pubs being  called The Moon Under Water, which became vastly successful and led to, with all due respect, the Wetherspoons which we know and avoid.

So, hopefully we can avoid thinking of the perfect quiz and the perfect quiz question, set high standards in the quizzes we run but not try to be brilliant with every question. One crowd’s perfect pub quiz might be another crowd’s night at a Wetherspoons.

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