probably not alone in this ritual: to read the greatest novel of Christmas at
the beginning of the holidays and to savour the very last word on Christmas
the last page before the great day itself is a point of honour - this book
that first entered my life as a schoolboy, a reading list compiled by a teacher
to broaden my horizons.
didn’t get around to reading it until I was at secondary school. The book
waited until I was ready to go on its journey, the opening scenes of snow and
Christmas soon seen through a transfer of strangeness so that the very world
around me, and my place in it, seemed capable of anything
Like many a child of my
generation, I was convinced that the contestants on University Challenge were somehow suspended in boxes in a row above
each other. The presenter had strange woolly hair and an even stranger name –
Bamber Gasket - or something like that. The theme tune sounded like it was
being played on a doorbell as the students, reading history and politics and
what not waved goodbye. They all had long hair and beards, floral shirts and
carried furry totems known as gonks. Gonk knows why.
Whenever I watched this
programme I had difficulty in understanding the questions never mind knowing
any of the answers.
As I got older and more
intellectual my strike rate began to improve: I could usually answer at least
one question a series. Eventually, I went to university myself. It was
certainly a challenge. For the first semester I grappled literary theory. I
didn’t come off too well in that particular grapple. I sat with rapt attention
in lecture hall after lecture hall wearing an expression of what I hoped was
cool sophistication. Derrida perhaps, working on a particularly tricky
crossword puzzle. But the truth was, I didn’t understand a sodding word of it.
Ferdinand de Saussure? Forget it. The only thing I understood about him was
that the spell check tried to change his name to Sausage. Messed up as I was, I
probably accepted the suggestion. One time I wrote a structuralist
interpretation of a Dickens novel and actually got a First for it. The tutor
wrote ‘this is a delight’ next to the coffee stain on the cover sheet. The only
problem was, I didn’t have a clue as to what I had written or done to deserve
such praise. Wandering lonely as a daffodil around the campus I began to doubt
my sanity. I asked myself things like, ‘does that sign FIRE EXIT really signify
FIRE EXIT? And what did that tutor really mean when he said ‘good morning’? It
was a vexing business. And I never saw one damned gonk in any of the corridors.
Somehow, I survived. My
strike rate for University Challenge tripled!
I was now averaging three questions per series. And, being an educated man, I
now knew that the contestants didn’t really sit in boxes suspended above each
intellectual days are long behind me now. I’m content to drink beer and watch Match of the Day without worrying about
what the ball and net might really signify in a post colonial theory context
with an amusing twist thrown in by Julie Kristeva and whether Alan Hansen’s
post match analysis could be linked to a post modern reading of The Knight’s Tale.
But the other evening I
accidentally watched University
Challenge. The show has gone through some changes. The gentle Bamber has
been replaced by the notoriously abrasive Paxman. The doorbell music is the
same. Gonks are now extinct. The questions, despite my university degree, are
just as incomprehensible. So imagine my shock when I suddenly scored five
consecutive points in a row. As usual I knew nothing about the trivial subjects
of science, mathematics and the arts. Then Paxman said, ‘Brunel, your
specialised round is on sausages.’
I got every damn one of
them right. Move over, Sir Ferdinand Sausage.