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 other.
Fortunately, my 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.