If you thought the geezers who devise the questions for pub quizzes do it for a laugh, think again. It's a way of life, an art form, a ceaseless search for perfection. At least, that's what it is to Marcus Berkmann. And as quizmeister at the Prince of Wales in Highgate - reckoned to host Britain's best bar-room contest - he should know. Turn the page to pit your wits (and win a prize)
It's one thing to like quizzes. All of us just liked quizzes, once. We answered questions, or failed miserably to answer them, and thought no more about it. Quizzes were just what we did on a Tuesday night. Turn up at your local pub, argue about the answer to question 6, occasionally win a pitiful sum of money, spend it all (and slightly more) on the last round before closing time. If you are absurdly competitive, don't mind inhaling other people's cigarette smoke and are ambivalent about being sober, it makes for the perfect evening.
And then one day, answering questions isn't enough. You crave to ask them instead. Who is this man behind the microphone, showing off, asking ridiculous questions about Scottish Second Division football clubs, and getting free drinks from a grateful management? In my local, The Prince of Wales in Highgate, north London, the regulars have traditionally taken turns to set the quiz, and after two and a half years of dedicated attendance, I was finally asked if I wanted to have a go. Oh yes, I said. Let me at it. There wouldn't be any boring football questions in my quiz. There'd be lots of boring cricket questions instead. Eleven years on, I find to my astonishment that I have set 85 quizzes at the PoW, and this year have compiled and edited a book of all the regulars' best quizzes, which is being published just in time for the lucrative Christmas market. Quizzes have annexed a chunk of my life, and a rather more substantial chunk of my brain.
For once you have started writing quiz questions, even for fun... well, there's no real way back to normal life. Sometimes they come to me in the bath.
Often it's while reading the newspaper. Occasionally it's somewhere genuinely inspiring: a walk though the woods, or along a deserted beach. They form in my mind without invitation, without prior warning. As a result I now appear to be hard-wired to view the whole of creation as a vast profusion of potential quiz questions. (It's a bit like those sad tourists, very often Japanese, who cannot go anywhere without filming it on a video camera. Live life! we want to cry. Don't just record it on tape! Don't transform your every - experience into something to ask drunk argumentative people on a Tuesday night!) Of course, it's not only me. The book includes quizzes from 10 different writers or teams of writers - a surprisingly disparate group of people, as it happens, although obviously they are all bright and highly opinionated. (Quizmasters are rarely people with small, withered egos. You have to have a certain amount of self-confidence to brazen it out when it becomes clear to everyone, including you, that one of your answers is hopelessly wrong.) Some of the writers have set a lot of quizzes, some only a few, but we all expend much effort on them, to an extent that may sometimes conflict with our professional and personal lives. Can such-or-such a question be any better? In this a bad question, is there a decent question screaming to get out? Is there such a thing as a perfect question?
For this is the question. Is there a perfect question?
Which leads us swiftly on to the next question. Can I write it? We are all engaged on a quest for the perfect question. Most of the time it lies tantalisingly beyond our reach. Just occasionally, walking in those woods or lying in that bath, we think we have found it. (If in the bath, we even shout "Eureka!") We are usually wrong.
For instance: which famous London theatre shares its name with a malleable silvery-white metallic element occurring principally in nickel-bearing ores, atomic number 46? When I dreamt this one up, I really thought I had hit the motherlode. It has all the hallmarks of perfection: at first glance it's terrifying - all that extraneous information about "nickel-bearing ores" being designed purely to put the wind up you - but give it a little thought and either i) the answer will come to you in a blinding flash, or ii) you will end up at two in the morning leafing through a list of London theatres while looking up the periodic table in Wikipedia. Two points, by the way, if you worked out it was "palladium" before the beginning of this sentence.
And yet, when I came to put together the book, I discovered that I wasn't the only one who had thought of this question. Indeed, of the 10 writers (or teams of writers), four of us had used it at some point. The wording may have been different, but the question was essentially the same. I asked them about it. They were all particularly proud of that question. They all swore blind that they hadn't stolen it from anyone. It was theirs, all theirs. Do you want to fight about it, I shouted. It's mine, all mine!