Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Unchained Melody

Winning the quiz night at my daughter’s school in 2012 was a bit unexpected. ‘Men Only - Xmas Edition’, we called ourselves. In deference not only to a top quality, top-shelf publication of our misspent youths, but in recognition of the fact that our wives had formed their own team and quite evidently saw no role for gentlemen amongst their ranks.

So we milked the moment of victory. I saw a couple of the defeated wives team in Waitrose the next morning and made sure to gloat insufferably. A bit like punting the horses, it’s hard to know when the chance might come round again. Walking up the road the next day, Andy from our team wound down the window as he passed me and shouted “Men Only! We showed ‘em!”

Quite how we scraped enough points together on that intoxicating night to finish top of the 30-odd team pile, I will never know.  Brains and knowledge, of course. But some inspired guesstimating and gut feelings clearly came to our rescue. Where did the correct date for the completion of the Berlin underground really come from? 1912 is the answer in case anyone is interested.

We took our crate of wine and scarpered, vowing to defend the title in 2013.

When we met up in the pub, it seemed like we talked of precious little else. That’s what real winners do. Re-inforce the self-belief. Beer helps.

Over the year, we strengthened our team. Paul came in to fill the empty stool. Yes, we achieved that compelling victory even with a man down. In the run up to the big night, we had a practice run in The Lamb’s monthly quiz. Fourth. But well beaten.  Still, we had some key members missing, so we were too not down-hearted. The Ridgeway flowing deep into lock-in time also helped to staunch the grieving. 

A bit nearer the day and the banter was heating up a notch. It was about regulo 7 at the point Pete suggested that, with revenge in the air, the girls’ team name should be Angry Birds. It probably reached regulo 9 when Jane, from said team e-mailed round to say something like “Angry Birds? Pah. I think the Crowing Cocks might suit them!” No further comment was needed.

During our final motivational session during The Crown’s Halloween beer festival, Dave came up with a trump card. A trip to the Tring micro-brewery was planned on the eve of the quiz to stock up on nourishment for the team. The event adopts the time-honoured ‘bring your own policy’ and Andy was enthusiastic, commenting that last year his four bottles of Wychwood had disappeared in an adrenalin-fuelled frenzy by the end of round 5. We all heartily agreed. I’d had to beg dregs of Rioja from Mrs A and was accused by the girls of trying to peek at their answers. How very dared they!

Some quick calculations quantified the need for two boxes of 18 pint minipolies and that the remains of the whip would even offset some of the cost per head. Genius.

The omens were good as we entered the hall. The boys were stationed at exactly the same location as in 2012 with the girls just off to starboard in prime heckling position. Dave had set up the minipolies at the head of the table and we had collectively brought enough cheese and biscuits to keep Wallace and Gromit out of mischief for months.   

There was a picture/dingbats round already on the table, together with a large tray of multi-coloured plasticine for the model-making round. The boys had broken the seal on the Tring Blonde cask ale and Andy and Andy were wondering whether a team Haka might be appropriate before things seriously got under way.

In truth, there was a touch of tenseness around the table. A sense of enormity about repeating the feat of last year. That was dispelled as soon as the quizmaster made his high camp entrance. Mr Pipprell, brought kicking and screaming out of retirement just for this event, swept in from the back of the hall, dressed in a turquoise knee-length chemise draped with feather boas. He was introduced by a member of the Committee as The Duchess of Aston Clinton. “They thought they’d seen the end of me when they sacked me! But I’m back!” Later, during one of the many interludes, Pippers offered sumptuous prizes to the first person up to the stage with a stripy shirt. “Here he comes”, he said, as the school head advanced to the stage, “The best paid head teacher in Hertfordshire!” Retirement clearly frees the shackles. 

We were slow out of the blocks. It took us 10 minutes just to choose a team name. And then in a flash of searing decisiveness, we settled for ‘Men Only’ again.  We were behind the girls and about half way down the leader board after the first round. But the second was more promising: a focus on conversions, ratios, arithmetic and the like. Brilliant. We had a mathematician in our ranks. Thierry was definitely a mathematician. I know this because Nick, also on our team, told Mrs A he was a chef. Stay with me...

…Thierry came to my 40th birthday party a few years ago and we were so relieved when he said he really enjoyed the poached salmon. I mean, it’s not everday one of your guests is a kitchen professional. I bumped into him a little while later on the commute into town.  We were chatting about this and that and I asked “Where do you work?” “At the University of Westminster”, he answered. “Oh”, I was rather surprised at this.  “In the canteen?” I enquired. Thierry’s turn to be perplexed. “No, no”, he said, eyebrows knitting in confusion. “…I’m a Professor of Mathematics.” So not turning out bangers and mash for cheapskate students in the Union then. Cheers Nick.

But even Thierry and Dave, another mathematical wizard, couldn’t haul us level. Round three was spelling. Nightmare. We knew the girls would be strong on this. Although we successfully negotiated the pitfalls of siege and seize; and Thierry – the Frenchman - persisted with his (correct) interpretation of sacrilegious, we fell down with embarrassment. Our version had only one r. And our harass had two. Both incorect apparrently.

Nevertheless, we feared not. We boldly played the joker on the performances round, which we confidently anticipated would be music. Last year we scored a perfect 10 on the round, doubled up to 20 with the joker.

And indeed it was music. But not as we knew it, Jim. Rodgers & Hammerstein were just not our forte, never mind the classical guff. Though we scored a respectable 7, there was insufficient nerdy prog rock and 80’s power metal to play to our undoubted, if narrow, strengths. We also came a cropper on the song that has topped the charts four times, each recorded by a different artist. ‘”You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”, maybe’, said Paul. ‘No’, he quickly corrected, ‘“Unchained Melody’”. That sounded good. We scribbled it down. And then the doubts set in. ‘What about “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” There’s at least three of those.’ In the end, that was the answer that appeared on the sheet. Of course the correct one was ‘Unchained Melody’. Even Gareth Gates got to number 1 with it. This proved to be an expensive two-pointer that wriggled out of our clutches.

Nick, though absolutely pants at correctly identifying peoples’ careers, was however, a first class architectural designer and spatial engineer. He was busy at the end of the table constructing a visual representation of the school’s ‘Achieve and Aspire’ motto. This was for the modeliing round, which though it did not carry any points, weighed in with an enormous welter of respect. Nick, partially assisted by Pete – labouring duties only -  was raising a fine and detailed scale model of the school chapel from the table, columns and finials cast in garish fluorescent modelling resin. The structure was completed with a lifelike Mr Pipprell sprawled on the chapel steps, wrapped in his electric blue feather boa.

We didn’t win that either. But we put up a good show. Others, including the ladies had taken a lateral view: Achieve and Aspire became A Chief and A Spire, opening up a whole new world of plasticine possibilities. The creativity on show was impressive.

After the break, fuelled by Brock Bitter and the remnants of the Blonde, we raised our game. We smashed the sci-fi round (oh yes) and the rocked the geography questions. By the time the scores were flashing away on the interactive magic whiteboard thingy, we were in touching distance of the lead. Thierry was moving into full heckle mode. Though in a measure of our overall less confident demeanour when compared with last year, he had thus far refrained from lobbing cocktail sausages and moulded cheese onto the wives’ table. I’m sure they were grateful.

Sport was last up and we briefly thought victory could be ours again. The round should have been a home run. But it was tough. Beaten finalists were sought (Clermont), minority sports were explored (rugby league) and we stuttered across the line with a 7/10. In the final analysis, it was not quite good enough.

Our blistering second half performance, powered by real ale and vintage cheese (no in-competition drug testing was necessary) saw us rise to 3rd spot of 31 teams, 1 ½ points off the lead. Or, put it another way, an unchained melody away from winning.   

But it would be churlish to lay the blame at the Righteous Brothers’ door. There were too many other answers we messed up on. We gave defending our hard fought 2012 title a very solid shot. We drained off some very fine ale and even the Angry Birds seemed pacified. Mainly because we didn’t win again. But we just might next year. I’m practising my spelling already.


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