Generally whenever I see the poor souls who do BBC Breakfast on Saturday it's only for a couple of bleary seconds because I left the TV on the night before. I usually fall asleep almost immediately again, having failed to turn the TV off again, leaving me with semi-conscious dreams where Hosni Mubarak is making an omelette on Saturday Kitchen. But this Saturday, I was up and awake before they even started. For I was heading to the World Quizzing Championships.
Getting up in the early a.m. to make a seven hour round trip to answer 240 written general knowledge questions may be considered an unorthodox way to spend a bank holiday weekend, but then again: 1) So is looking at an elderly couple looking at boats and 2) My lifelong love of quizzes has never really been in the same orbit as orthodox anyway.
As a kid, my favourite show was Going For Gold. In primary school, I was the captain of a team that would prepare for nationwide general knowledge competitions in advance and was doing table quizzes in pubs since I was about 10. In college I ran the Quiz Society and have written questions for two series of BBC One gameshow Secret Fortune (series 3 coming to your screens sometime in autumn, tell your friends). I really like quizzes is basically what I'm saying.
But even for an obsessive like me, competing in the World Quizzing Championships was a massive step up. For starters, save for an occasional pub quiz at my local where the questions are punctuated by will.i.am and other such phat beats, I've answered a lot less questions than I've asked over the last few years, so I felt a bit rusty. It was like preparing to step in the ring with Mohammad Ali by watching The Champ. Then I had to consider the competition. All 1,742 of them. And some of them you may recognise.
Thankfully the intimidating notion of taking on TV's most successful and prolific quizzers in two long form general knowledge exams was counteracted by the friendly attitude at the Irish heat. It was run by adjudicator Evelyn O'Connor, a teacher who decided to take a break from supervising student tests in the week by supervising an adult test at the weekend and her husband John Nolan, local radio host and one of Ireland's top quizzers who after competing in England last year liked it so much he brought the company over. I've known John, along with another married couple present on the day, Mike and Michelle Coyne since college when I joined the Quiz Society they founded, where they were the collective Carl Weathers to my hopefully more coherent Sly Stallone.
You might think I'm overdoing the sports metaphors, but quizzing is just as competitive and skilful as any sport. University Challenge is as much a game as possession and what you do with it as rugby union. And a cauliflower ear is probably preferable to Paxman chewing you out. And unlike darts or curling, you can throw an interesting piece of trivia out there in a social situation without causing serious injury.
Having all taken our seats in The Great Quiz Hall (a function room in a rugby club in Athlone) we were given our first paper, and an hour in which to complete it. The four topics of questions would be media, entertainment, world and history, which sounded like four very good subjects for me to start on. Until I read the questions, that is.
"Which composer's Symphony Number 45 is called 'The Farewell Symphony' because the musicians gradually leave the stage after doing solos, until just two violinists remain?" This was featured in the entertainment round, along with questions about Indian classic music, Italian violin manufacture and Afro-French chart toppers. It was like a musical equivalent of Channel 4's one-time weekend sport line up. It was Haydn, by the way. Nah, me neither.
After our hour was up we swapped papers with the person sitting opposite us and launched into correcting. Usually when you get a question right in a quiz, you hear a good cocophony of "WAHEY!" In this one when we got one right, there were just sighs of relief.
When we adjourned for lunch, we all felt a bit chastened. So much so that when I went up to Derek, an older man who reminded me a bit of Frank Windsor I'd been chatting cordially to earlier, he put his hand out and said "Don't talk to me!", like I was Roger Cook chasing him down to ask him where he'd hid the shareholders' money as he drove off in his Mercedes.
The second paper, with topics like science, culture and lifestyle was worse again, with even the sport round proving impenetrable. It got so bad at one point when I was asked to identify champion surfer Kelly Slater, I flailed round for an answer before plumping for "Jeff Surfman".
At the end of the quiz I scored 86 out of 210 points, and I had no real idea what that meant. On the fact of it that sort of score sounded so low it'd be enough to have you banished from town on the back of a donkey, but given the circumstances it might enough for a respectable placing. As it turned out the latter was true, and I ended up sixth on the day, beaten to fifth by my tablemate Padraic Fanning, an affable former builder who, judging by the paper of his I marked, was better schooled in eastern philosophy than your average chippie. Organiser John Nolan came second, beaten to top spot by Lorcan Duff, who once appeared on and won niche Irish awesomeness Know Your Sport.
After the event it turned out a few lads in Kerry who presumably had some kind of avian Hitchcock situation and couldn't leave their houses sent in their scores remotely, which bumped me down the pegging order a bit, but not enough to dislodge me from the Top 10 in Ireland, or the Top 500 in the world. To compound my vanity, I was also the highest scorer in the country under 30 and the top scorer in Ulster. Granted I had no competition in the U-30 category and only one in the Ulster category, but I like to think that such is my reputation, hoardes of twentysomething Northerners turned tail out of fear.
Titled and ranked as I am though, TV's best and brightest have nothing to worry about just yet. The winner, former Mastermind champ Jesse Honey, scored a full 100 more points than me. Millionaire winner and current Egghead Pat Gibson's worst round was still one better than my best and, although I pushed them relatively close, all The Chasers beat me too. But I'll catch them next year.