The sex appeal of quizzing by Brasenose’s Ben Ralph

I didn’t quite know what to expect on my return to Oxford, freshly annointed by Student Beans, a website whose top story appears to be “18 HILARIOUS googly eyed masterpieces” (you’ll laugh until your eyes go googly) as the fifth hottest University Challenge contestant of all time. It certainly wasn’t rampant apathy.  The thing I learnt about fame that lonely, unheralded day, is that it is relative. University Challenge is perhaps the pinnacle of celebrity for an Oxford undergraduate, bar perhaps some of the more openly racist members of OUCA, or particularly grandiloquent social secretaries of rugby clubs.

I mean, I got added on Facebook by about seven people I had never met, had someone on Twitter claiming they wanted to go “full Miley Cyrus on me” and was even emailed commiserations by a mysterious marriage counsellor in London. I had made the big time. But nobody else seemed to have realised.

The curious thing was that I had reached such extraordinary fame due to my superior quizzing ability.  Now, I can think of two activites at Oxford that are most likely to lead to an appearance on national television, representing the University in some fashion.  One of them is rowing: the Boat Race, which features the cream of Oxford’s physical crop, men who have trained hours a day for months on end for the mere chance of making the eight that rows against Cambridge down the Tideway. The other is quizzing.  I put down my quizzing pre-eminence down to spending a bit more time than most watching BBC4 rather than E4, having a smartphone equipped with Wikipedia and a history of geeky friends.  

By all means, this is an odd basis for veneration.  There is this idea that University Challenge showcases the finest brains of the student population, whereas the Boat Race showcases the most atheletic bodies, but the truth is, quizzing tests a very strange sort of knowledge.  University Challenge favours those with a superficial knowledge of a lot of different things, along with the ability to recall this information unaided almost immediately.  Its sporting equivalent would be something like the primary school sports day, rewarding a good all-round ability at a variety of essentially pointless activities. I’d vouch that the ability to recognise Colin Firth’s voice from Mamma Mia after half a bar is almost precisely as useful as the ability to get swiftly from A to B while balancing an egg on a spoon. 

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Yet, bizzarely, the show works. That blue moon of the show, the tie-break, is to penalty shoot-outs what a shot of absinthe is to a lukewarm beer. I often find myself inadvertently whistling an Ennio Morricone theme as the dreaded gong sounds with the scores level. With Roger Tilling’s voice approaching the pitch of a dog whistle and the camera frantically zooming in on the poor quizzer’s sweaty brow, the moment when someone buzzes in is frankly orgasmic.  

Alas, the show I featured in spluttered to an embarrassing climax, with my team all but pulling out just as we were half way in. Luckily for me and my ego, my thirty minutes of fame (well, twenty eight to be precise) managed to sustain some sort of zombiefied, online existence, culminating in my appearance on the previously mentioned third-rate Student Beans knock-off article.  Inevitably though, the train had to run out of steam at some point. My google search history is now an embarrassing witness to my pathetic attempts to find one more adoring Tumblr page, one more tweet proclaiming that I am “dishy”, one more substandard piece of ‘journalism’ featuring yours truly. But no: the rest is silence. So instead I turn to this venerable newspaper to reanimate the twice-dead corpse of my celebrity.