Talking to the Paxman about poetry

December 1st 2007. Ten years ago today.

When the esteemed comedian Simon Evans rang me up one afternoon to explain that comedy impresario Peter Grahame wanted to put a comedians team together for  a series called University Challenge the Professionals, he explained that my name had come up, with the explanation “We need a scientist”.

What I didn’t say was “Don’t be silly. Family pressure saw me stumble into a medical career with no real understanding of, or enthusiasm for science”

What I didn’t say was “Oh my f**king lord. I have been obsessed with quizzing all my life, represented my school, my medical school, and have a longstanding and mostly successful addiction to pub quiz machines. This would be a dream. Do not under any circumstances take this dream away from me. I really, really need this.”

I think I said something like “Yeah I will give it a go”.

I was pretty sure that Pete, Simon, Natalie Haynes and myself had stormed the audition. I was sorry that Nick Revell and Stewart Lee couldn’t make the audition, and that Dan Antopolski had made the audition but not the final cut. Well more delighted than sorry, to be fair.

All that was left was to do our thing for the comedy community and defeat a team from the Ministry of Justice. Looking back, I don’t know why we were utterly confident that we would win. We weren’t to know that one of their players Rob Linham was one of the most significant figures in the history of academic buzzer quizzing. Or that another one of their players, Andrew Frazer was a veteran of the upper echelons of the Quiz League of London, whose knowledge of history was reputed to make Kevin Ashman look like Amir Khan.

We started well. Personal dreams seemed intact. Then slowly, and then remorselessly we got taken apart by the speed and brilliance of a remarkably knowledgable quartet, who would go on to win the series by marmalising all opposition. Watching back, the failure to identify the Graf Spee, or Kaliningrad stand out as poor misses.

It hurt like hell.

Then at the end Paxman said “Sporting enough to take part, anyway”

Which I heard as “Thank you for agreeing to be such amiable cannon fodder. Now piss off and let the civil servants do their thing.”

As usual I found solace in lager, as many of the teams convened in the hotel bar in the evening. I got chatting to the captain of The Lutenists, and the conversation moved on to our heavy defeat. I was asked the score, and replied “215-100”  He looked genuinely astonished.

“100? That’s actually a good score for a team of comedians”

That is how it all started. Being patronised by a lutenist. The shame. I looked at him. Then I looked around the bar. And all I could see in my head,  were white, middle aged, supremely well educated, badly dressed men.

And I made a vow that  I would bloody well join their gang. That one day I would be as good as them at quizzing, and as badly dressed as them as well.

I had no idea just how accurately I would fulfil my vows. Today I’d like to thank the lutenist who, ten years ago today, utterly changed my life. I owe you a pint.

 

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