I’m fifty-nine years old. That’s eight years older than my Dad ever got to be. When I look at photographs of him, all I see is an older man. Maybe it’s the Bobby Charlton comb-over. Or the fat tie. Or that hideous shirt he wore with its massive hang-glider of a collar. Or maybe it’s because I’m seeing him through the filter of my childhood. In my head he will always be older than me and I’m still somewhere in my late twenties. But I’m not. Oh God. That means that my kids and my grandkids probably see me as an old man. Ouch. I’m not old, okay? Admittedly the vehicle in which I travel through life has started to deteriorate; parts have begun to wear out, things grind and click that didn’t before, and the bodywork is looking a bit shabby. But that’s no reason for the driver to be old.
Age is a state of mind. I know people who are in their seventies who still do extreme sports. But I also know people who were old when they were thirty; who went from toddling to pottering without all that exciting, vigorous, passionate life-affirming stuff in between. I even know a chap whose fondest childhood memory was having his own compost heap to manage (mine involved a girl called Andrea and a stable). But while he muses over which funeral plan offers the best free gift, I go through life thinking I have decades more excitement and experiences ahead. I am going to stay feeling young for as long as I can. I will never ever own a cardigan. All of which preamble leads me to my story. It’s 2004. Picture a small pub in a village in Lancashire, somewhere between Wigan and Chorley, and very near to Christmas. I’d been sent on a training course in Bolton – a Home Office sponsored crime prevention thing – that brought together police officers, like me, from all over the UK to be taught the arcane secrets of five lever mortice locks, smart water and the joys of trellis fencing.
We were all staying in a joyless 1970s motel with an in-house carvery and staff that supplied more false bonhomie than we could comfortably swallow. The food wasn’t bad but, as we approached the end of the week, the thought of generous meat portions that left you sweating all night made us wonder whether there was somewhere local that offered an alternative. A good chippy maybe. Or a Chinese. So a group of six of us put on our overcoats and set off into the biting wind and flurries of sleet in search of gastronomic delights.The nearest village was about a mile away. It was small and dour but it boasted three pubs. We were told that there had once been eight but the number had been slowly whittled down over the course of a decade. Most recently, one pub had been turned into a convenience store and another had been bought by a supermarket chain and was currently being converted into a second convenience store, much to the inconvenience of the first. When we arrived it was around 6 pm and nothing was open except for the pubs. So much for convenience. As we were all freezing at this point, except for a lad from Newcastle who seemed perfectly comfortable in just a T shirt and jeans, we made our way to the first and largest of the three pubs. To our delight, we discovered that it was ‘Pub Quiz and Pie Night’. We rejoiced - if there’s one thing Lancashire does well, it’s pies.
The pub was a shining sea of bald pates and blue rinses. Zimmer frames lined the walls like crowd-control barriers and there were more walking sticks on show than you could shake a walking stick at. Various smells vied for dominance above the warm fug of beer, stewing steak and fire smoke; a sweet, cloying smell that included hints of cabbage, embrocation, litter trays and damp flat-caps. We got some drinks, ordered our pies and were invited to make up a team.
‘We must have caught it on Pension Day,’ remarked one of my group – a PC from Sussex called Andy. ‘There isn’t a person here under sixty-five. Except us.’
‘This isn’t good,’ said Simon from Plymouth, ‘This lot all have at least twenty years on us. They’ll know everything. Their collective age must be in the thousands.’
‘Ah, but they may not be so hot on contemporary subjects,’ said Andy. ‘They won’t know much about pop music or the charts.
’‘Nor do I and I’m forty-six,’ I said.
‘Mark my words, they’ll know everything there is to know about soap operas and daytime TV. They’re the demographic it was designed for,’ said Graham from Hampshire, a third member of our party. ‘That’s why all the adverts at that time of day are for incontinence pants, denture fixative and making wills.’
‘Let’s see what comes up before you start with all the doom and gloom,’ scolded Andy. ‘Don’t be so negative.’
‘Hmf,’ said Simon. ‘I’m not encouraged by the fact that the bloke running the quiz looks to be as old as they are.’
The quizmaster was in his seventies; a jovial senior citizen with the kind of spectacles you daren't look at the sun through and wearing a hand-knitted sweater which boasted the words ‘Quiz Master’ in different colours knitted on the front. Unfortunately, due to the low light and a poor choice of wool colours, only the Q, U, I, M and S were really visible. His name, delightfully, was Peter Asking.
‘Good evening, good evening, good evening!’ he enthused, striding into an open space between the pub tables. ‘I’m your quiz master for tonight, and I’ll be asking the questions. So, who’s asking? It’s…Peter Asking!’
He said this as if it were some kind of catchphrase that his audience would all know and join in with. They didn’t. And didn’t.
‘Right then. Let’s get cracking shall we? We have five rounds today and a smashing jackpot prize. Write your team name on the top of your answer sheet and then we can kick off Round One, which is general knowledge. When we’ve finished, swap your answer papers with the team nearest you and mark each other’s. Then my glamorous assistant - my lovely wife Margaret - will gather them all in, check them over and collate the scores. All clear? Good. Off we go then! Round one. Question one. In what year was the planet Pluto discovered?’
‘That was sometime in the 20th century wasn’t it?’ whispered Simon.
‘I know it was a bloke called Clyde Tombaugh.’ I said. ‘He got the photographic proof back in the thirties. But it had been predicted to exist for over a century. I think Percival Lowell recorded two sightings of it but didn’t recognise it for what it was.’
‘You’re over thinking it,’ said Colin, the Geordie. ‘Put 1930s.’
‘Pluto isn’t a planet anyway,’ said Andy. ‘It’s a dwarf planet and …’
‘Question two ...’
‘Quick! Write something down!’ hissed Graham.
I wrote ‘1935’. I was wrong; it was 1930.
‘What is the largest species of fish in the world,’ asked Mr. Asking. ‘That’s the whale shark,’ said Andy. ‘At least, I think it is.’
‘Question three. What is the capital of Liberia?’
‘Quick! Put down whale shark!’ snapped Andy. ‘What was question three again?’
Things took a distinct turn for the worse during the scoring for round one when it became apparent that Peter Asking was not only a bellwether for fashion knitwear, but also an annoyingly conciliatory quizmaster who melted before any appeal like a Werther's Original on a radiator. When the correct answer to question six was given as 'crossbow,’ he allowed 'bow and arrow', even though the question had clearly stated that the answer involved a mechanical device. Graham had pointed out that, by definition, ‘mechanical’ meant an action completed without conscious thought, so a bow and arrow didn’t count. The bow and arrow man had then countered by saying that pulling a crossbow trigger involved conscious thought and was surely no different, to which Graham replied that, while pulling the trigger was indeed a deliberate act, the delivery of the arrow was by entirely mechanical means. By now the audience had started to grumble so Peter Asking attempted to calm the waters by saying that everyone could have a point regardless of what answer they’d written down. At this point Graham was heard to say that there wasn’t much point in trying to get the correct answers if the quiz master didn’t care what the correct answers were.
Question ten – a picture question - proved to be even worse. A photograph of radio presenter, Emma B., was displayed on the screen and Asking awarded a point to someone who identified her as ‘Baby Spice’, even though she wasn’t. Graham swore and began sulking, unaware that he was still to visit new and previously unplumbed depths of despair. Round two was based upon the popular TV show, Family Fortunes (or Family Feud, if you’re American). A question was posed and the teams then had to record what they thought would be the top five answers given by a representative group of fifty people. After the inevitable failed attempt to get a rousing, ‘Who’s asking? It’s…Peter Asking!’ from his audience, the quizmaster launched into question one. ‘Here we go then. We asked fifty people on the streets of Roby Mill to name a popular fried food. Write down what you think were the top five answers given.’ We debated the various merits of chicken, burgers, sausages and even deep-fried Mars Bars but eventually settled on fish and chips as our best answer. However, the top answer from Peter’s mysterious ‘fifty people’ turned out to be ‘spam and bacon’. We hadn’t expected that. Even more surprising had been their second and third most popular answers of 'crisps' and 'tempura'.
Judging by the grumbles and moans among the teams, no one else had expected those answers either and the tutting and clacking of false teeth was fearful to hear. ‘Tempura?’ asked an indignant and indulgently bosomed woman in cowslip yellow woollens. ‘What the bloody hell is tempura?’
‘It’s batter, love,’ replied a florid-faced pensioner on the next table.
‘Then bloody call it batter and be done with it,’ said the lady in yellow.
‘Does that mean we get a point for fish and chips?’ asked another. ‘That’s got batter on.’
‘Oh, go on then,’ the quiz master conceded.
‘Yay! We get a point!’ said Simon.
‘What about a banana fritter?’
‘Oh for god’s sake!’ snapped Graham. ‘Are you telling me that the people of Roby bloody Mill – people who pick spam and bacon as their first choice -- eat more bloody tempura than chips? Which fifty people did they ask? A bloody bus load of Japanese tourists?’
‘Right, question two ...’
And so the quiz progressed with each question delivering ever more surprising answers. The question, ‘We asked fifty people on the streets of Appley Bridge to name something that keeps them up at night’ produced a flurry of suggestions ranging from money worries to snoring, cats howling and horny owls. However, the top answer was...sex.'
‘The thing that most frequently keeps people awake at night is sex?’ whispered Andy. ‘Not in my house.’
‘I swear he’s making up these answers,’ said Graham.
‘Or he’s copied the questions and answers from the Internet,’ suggested Simon. ‘And who are these fifty people he’s asked?’
‘It’s certainly none of this lot,’ said Andy, looking around at the elderly contestants.
‘Sex doesn’t have to stop when you get your bus pass,’ said Simon. ‘Just ask Mick Jagger.’
‘I’m obviously living in the wrong town,’ said Andy.
‘I’m not,’ said Colin with a cheeky wink.
‘Question three,’ interrupted Peter Asking. ‘We asked fifty people from Shevington what their partners did that irritated them most.’
‘Leaving the cap off the toothpaste?’ offered Simon.
‘Traipsing mud into the house?’ said Andy.
‘You wait, it’ll be something stupid,’ growled Graham.
The number one answer was, once again, sex.
‘See? I was right,’ said Graham.
‘If the people of Appley Bridge find sex with their partners irritating they’re doing it wrong,’ added Simon.
After a question about people’s favourite comedy double acts (answers: Laurel and Hardy, Morecambe and Wise, Abbot and Costello, The Two Ronnies, and Cannon and Ball), in which our team scored reasonably well, the round concluded with a spectacular question five.
‘Last question this round,’ said the quizmaster. ‘We asked fifty people from Charnock Richard what their ... oh dear ...’ He dabbed the embarrassment from his brow. ‘Er … right ... we asked them ... er ...oh dear, oh dear ... we asked them to name the five most popular sexual positions.’
‘More sex. He’s obsessed,’ said Graham.
‘Any man wearing a pullover that says QUIMS on the front is kind of advertising that fact,’ said Simon.
‘Then why is he acting all embarrassed?’ asked Andy. ‘Perhaps he didn’t write the questions?’ ‘You’d think he’d have had a look through them before the kick off.’
‘At least we stand a chance of answering this one,’ I said. ‘So ... you’ve got your missionary, doggy style and soixante neuf. We just need two more.’
‘What’s it called when the woman goes on top?’ asked Simon.
‘Cowgirl?’ suggested Colin. ‘That’ll do. We need one more.’
There was a silence as we chewed our pencils and searched our minds for an answer. And searched.
‘This is ridiculous,’ I said. ‘Surely we can name five sexual positions?’
‘Maybe we’re all more prudish than we thought,’ said Andy.
‘It’s not that. There are lots of positions,’ said Simon. ‘I just don’t know what they’re called.’
‘What about the Kama Sutra?’ said Colin. ‘There’s loads of positions in there and they’ve all got daft names like splitting the bamboo or the congress of the cow and stuff …’
‘I hardly think that people around here know about the Kama Sutra,’ said Andy.
‘They knew about bloody tempura,’ said Graham.
‘We need a fifth position, guys!’ I snapped. ‘We must know more than four surely?’
All of a sudden, there was one of those curious, unplanned lulls in the conversation when the whole pub became momentarily silent. In that precise moment, an older lady barked into the deaf ear of one of her team mates, ‘Beryl ... is anal a position?’
The silence became, if it was possible, even more silent. And then the pub erupted with laughter. Loud cackling laughter. Raucous asthmatic laughter. Deep booming laughter. Standing amid the hooting pensioners and laughing as loudly as anyone else, Peter Asking wiped the tears from his magnified eyes and attempted to regain control of the proceedings. ‘Dear me! Right. Thirty seconds people! Then I must ask you to stop writing.’
‘You could put down scissoring,’ said Colin. ‘It’s a lesbian thing.’
‘It’s the best we have,’ I said and scribbled it down before handing our answer sheet to the next table for marking.
The lovely Margaret then gathered in all the papers, collated the scores and handed them to her husband who revealed to us that the top five (as chosen by the good folk of Charnock Richard) was: ‘Missionary’, ‘doggy-style’, ‘soixante neuf’, ‘standing up against a wall’ and ‘the wheelbarrow’.
‘You have to applaud their sense of adventure,’ said Simon. ‘Not to mention their athleticism.’
‘That’s all I’m going to be thinking about at work from now on,’ said Andy. ‘Every time I go to a pensioner’s house to do a crime prevention survey I’m going to be thinking ‘Are you one of the wheelbarrow lot?’ Dear God.’
The evening followed its inevitable and occasionally frustrating course and ended with a final round of general knowledge questions in our team picked up some decent points. We stumbled on only one question: 'Name the four reindeer belonging to Santa whose names have only five letters.’ ‘So the rhyme goes ... Donner and Blitzen. Dasher and Dancer. Comet and Cupid. Vixen and Prancer,’ said Simon.
‘And there’s Rudolph of course,’ said Colin.
‘Vixen, Cupid and Comet. There’s only three,’ said Graham, counting the letters off on his fingers. ‘Those are the only five letter names.’ It transpired that Peter Asking had mistaken ‘Donner’ for the rather more pedestrian ‘Donna’. By way of an apology he awarded points to anyone who had written down a five letter name regardless of accuracy. For the first and only time in history, Santa’s sleigh would be pulled that night by Gazza, Digby, Jimbo, Rover, Fanny, Derek, Porno and Janet. The cash prize was eventually won by a team of matronly ladies from the WI who immediately donated it to a local animal charity. Our team placed a creditable third and won a bottle of prosecco. All of which goes to prove that you’re only as old as you feel. Or, as in this instance, the senior citizen you feel.
Stevyn Colgan is the author of ten books, an artist, and a popular speaker at UK and international events and festivals. He has appeared on numerous podcasts and radio shows including Freakonomics, Saturday Live, Do The Right Thing, Eat Sleep Work Repeat, No Such Thing As A Fish and Josie Long’s Short Cuts. For thirty years he was a police officer in London. And for more than a decade he was one of the ‘elves’ that research and write the multi award-winning TV series QI. He was part of the writing team that won the Rose D’Or for BBC Radio 4’s The Museum of Curiosity and his first novel, A Murder to Die For, was shortlisted for the Dead Good Readers’ Awards and longlisted for The Guardian Not The Booker Prize 2018. He co-hosts the (nearly) prize-winning writers podcast We’d like a Word with author Paul Waters, and lives on the Buckinghamshire/Oxfordshire border where they film the Midsomer Murders TV series. He spends most of his waking hours peering nervously out of the window and avoiding sharp objects. His current books, all available on Amazon, are: A Murder To Die For, The Diabolical Club, One Step Ahead: Notes from the Problem Solving Unit and Saving Bletchey Park (with Dr Sue Black, OBE).
website: https://www.stevyncolgan.com/ contact - firstname.lastname@example.org
Art blog: https://colganart.blogspot.com/