This Is It

Monday, BBC2, 8pm. University Challenge. Featuring me.

I love University Challenge. Really, I should say loved. Because being involved has given me such a strange sense of awkwardness towards it.

For years, and I’m not exaggerating here, every time I learnt a piece of trivia, Jeremy Paxman’s voice would enter my mind and phrase several questions. I would make up in my mind when was the best time to buzz in so as not to incur a penalty, and retire feeling confident that, should I end up on University Challenge, I would definitely be in with a shout should that particular morsel rear its head.

I enjoyed playing along at home. I’m one of those annoying people who shouts out and even discusses the answer to quiz questions at home. The reason? I’m good at it, and I want you to know.

Now that’s not particularly nice, is it? But that’s what I do. And I make sure to make a particular effort if I’m watching University Challenge with a new acquaintance. Act casual. Know the answers. Deliver them as if everyone knows that. Act modestly when the congratulations come my way. I make myself sick with it sometimes. I know I’m ridiculous, that I’m showing off, but it won’t stop me.

I’ve been doing this for years. Ever since I realised I had a knack for storing odd bits of stuff in my mind. When I applied to university, there was some question over whether or not I might go. I should have done better in my exams. I could have gone to a better institution.

Then I watched Starter For Ten. I’m odd with films. I tend to compare myself to the characters, particularly if they’re the same age as me. This is why I never liked films with children in when I was a child. I had not been given a chocolate factory, and Charlie Bucket was not all that exceptional a child.

The quiz team in Starter For Ten were average. The film, let’s be honest, was average. I always find that, though, when extraordinary people are written about by people who are ordinary. It doesn’t line up. For the man-on-the-street, the quiz team stacks up. For me, however, it made no sense.

I’m arrogant, and I knew I was good enough. So I went to university. To say that University Challenge was not a major driving force in my wanting to go to university is a lie. I should be taking a degree in general knowledge, and I know that. Subject-specific education has been constraining.

In reality, though, I didn’t want to know whether I was good enough or not. Yes, I had better general knowledge than anyone I knew, but there are tens of thousands of students in Liverpool. Nearly two hundred turned up to take the exam. My chances, on paper, were not so good.

But this wasn’t paper, and through some quirks of fortune and my own ability, I made the team, entered the competition.

And now it’s over for me. The whole series has been recorded, the winners awarded. I can’t watch any of it. The episodes I’m not in, I still feel a part of. It makes me feel uncomfortable.

The build-up was so great, to have it all end in just over half an hour was hideously anticlimactic.

I still get Paxman’s voice in my head. Nobody told my brain it’s over. It’s just keeping on training, putting itself through the same questions it has for longer than I can remember. I keep stopping myself mid-question, telling myself off. It’s done. You can’t compete twice.

So, I won’t be watching on Monday. You can. But for me it’s just too surreal. It was built up for so long, and over in an instant. I almost feel like it never happened at all. But this is it.


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