Catz Alumni Take On University Challenge

We were delighted to have a team of alumni – Michael Billington (1958, English), Susie Boyt (1988, English), Peter Knowles (1980, English) and Tim Webber (1984, Physics) – representing St Catz in Christmas University Challenge last year. Here, Susie Boyt writes about the experience.

It is hard to prepare for University Challenge. Like everyone, I know a ton about the things I know about: Henry James, American poetry, psychoanalysis, English nineteenth-century history, cakes, the golden age of musicals, the ‘School of London’ painters and what John Bayley who taught me at Catz in 1990 used to call, ‘whither the novel?’ – but rather less about everything else.

I do hero-worship Christmas, however, and I knew that Christmas trivia was bound to feature, so I acquired some recherché Christmas facts such as the name of Good King Wenceslas’ brother who killed him (Boleslaw the Bad). I was also word perfect on the names of all the seven dwarves and the TV transmission dates of The Wizard of Oz. Santa’s reindeer I had memorised.

On the train I sat with my fellow teammate, the distinguished theatre critic and writer Michael Billington, and we tested each other on the recent female winners of the Nobel Prize: Donna Strickland, Physics; Frances Arnold, Chemistry; and Nadia Murad, PeaceI recited their names over and over. It being the centenary of women’s suffrage, I learned a whole tranche of suffragette facts too. For good measure, I also taught myself the ‘seven ages of man’ speech from As You Like It. I always forget that taste, according to Shakespeare, is the last thing to go. I like the idea of someone suddenly opting for marigold curtains and a lime green bed jacket in their final hours.

University Challenge is filmed in Salford and involves a brief minibreak in that city’s Holiday Inn. I installed my suitcase in my room, found Michael in the hotel foyer and went to meet our august teammates: the controller of BBC Parliament TV Channel and editor of Today in Parliament, Peter Knowles (our brilliant captain), and the Academy Award-winning special effects supervisor Tim Webber. We had hair and make-up done and my ‘Please don’t make me look like a Russian air hostess’ entreaty was heeded. In the green room, it soon became clear that the two teams comprised seven men and me.

The other team, Peterhouse Cambridge, seemed old-school in the extreme. Oh look! There was Michael Howard – former leader of the Conservative Party. One of his excessively tall teammates, who boasted red corduroy trousers, looked at me askance when I said, ‘No women in your team?’ Peterhouse has been co-ed since 1985, I almost reminded him. Some basic sensations from my Beano-reading days assailed me. We hadn’t quite thought it would be the Establishment against the Ragamuffins, but oddly there was something of that floating in the air.

We watched the teams before us competing on television screens in the green room, sighing when we didn’t know the answers, hysterical with glee when we did. There were many questions about Christmas carols and musicals, which heartened me.

A funny thing about University Challenge – the desire not to look stupid is much, much stronger than the desire to conquer. I have often noted that the pleasure of things going well in life never quite equals the relief of things not going badly.

We rehearsed our introductions with the production manager. My nerves were running high. We had been waiting around a bit too long, I felt our energy depleting, and it was partly due to the fact that an earlier contestant had spilt a glass of water down the front of her dress and held things up. I too was feeling accident-prone. I had an awful feeling I might get it all muddled and declare ‘Good evening, I’m Nadia Murhad and I won the Nobel Prize for Peace,’ or something disgraceful, but when it was my turn I heard myself say ‘I work as a novelist and I write dark books with high spirits’ which surprised me a bit, but wasn’t untrue. We had some practice questions, one of which asked for words ending in ‘een’. I remembered that the ruinous potato-based Irish spirit was called potcheen and that memory made me rub my poor head. Jeremy Paxman, reliably waspish, kept the tension up as we began the programme proper.

Koumpounophobia is the word for button phobia, and it affects many contestants of University Challenge without doubt. It is quite astonishing the extent to which you can be fairly certain of an answer, while another part of your brain insists that on no account must your fingers go anywhere near the buzzer. Our first question was: ‘Described by the writer John O’ Farrell as the paramilitary wing of the London Stock Exchange, which joint-stock company received its royal charter on New Year’s Eve 1600, trading in cotton, silk, opium and tea and was from the mid-eighteenth century…?’ My head, my fingertips, even my elbows were screaming at me ‘East India Company, you doughnut,’ and so it was, as the Peterhouse team announced.

The next 20 minutes passed extremely quickly. My teammates were knowledgeable and had whip-smart reactions. I couldn’t believe how much they all knew. Perhaps my favourite moment came when there was a musicals question and the heads of the Catz team all swung rapidly round to face me. (The answer was Carousel). Before long we were 70 points ahead, but in the end, we were pipped by five points by Peterhouse who went on to win the overall trophy. Golf was our downfall and, perhaps, not being competitive enough. We didn’t mind too much. I am a bit proud not to know about golf, in my way. Winning can look a bit needy and hysterical when viewed from some angles, I said to myself.

Afterwards we ate and drank until midnight, reminiscing about our time at Oxford. It had been a nerve-racking experience, but a good one, largely due to my charming fellow contestants. We planned to reconvene, perhaps at a modest pub quiz next time, emerging victorious, after which there would be no stopping us…

Susie Boyt’s latest novel Love & Fame is published by Virago.