But it’s a boy thing, admits Mark Mason. Women are just too sensible to watch Spinal Tap 35 times — but they don’t know what connects Ringo Starr and Shane Warne
For years I thought it was just me and my friends. Merrily we dotted our conversations with random facts — Carlsberg Special Brew was invented for Winston Churchill, the M2 is the only British motorway that connects with no other motorway, a Rubik’s Cube has more combinations than light travels inches in a century… Never did we stop to think that this trait might actually say anything about us. But then along came Schott’s Miscellany, Does Anything Eat Wasps? and QI. All of a sudden trivia is trendy. The pub quiz has escaped its traditional home, finding favour everywhere from corporate jollies to political conferences. Just why do tiny facts hold us in such a spell?
An early thought as I researched my new book on the subject was that trivia symbolises what J.B. Priestley called ‘truth’s determination to keep right on being stranger than fiction’. The nugget, for instance, that the second-fastest accelerating animal on the planet — behind the cheetah — is the greyhound: 0 to 45 miles per hour in one second. An invented animal that did that would be of no interest. Then my enquiries began to demolish myths. These random facts, it transpired, aren’t random at all: trivia operates along tangents. There is no file in your brain marked ‘Interesting Facts’ into which you can dip at will. Only when a stimulus occurs do you remember that you’ve remembered. A friend told me that the policeman who discovered Eddie Cochran’s body was Dave Dee (later to find fame with Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich) — which reminded me that one of the British soldiers guarding Rudolf Hess at Spandau prison was a young Bernard Manning.
These tangents result from ‘apophenia’, the mind’s propensity to see patterns even where there are no patterns. Arthur I. Miller, professor of the history of science at UCL, explained to me how a trivialist’s brain mirrors that of a scientist. Learning that the one thing the SAS never say before a mission is ‘good luck’, I’d filed them away with actors. The patterns observed in science are usually just as meaningless, said Arthur; but on the rare occasions they aren’t, breakthroughs occur. As when Newton spotted that the moon falls towards the earth in the same way an apple does. The insight revolutionised our view of gravity.
But despite such findings, my research still struggled with one fundamental question: why is trivia such a male pursuit? Mastermind revealed last year that it finds it hard to attract female contestants, John Humphrys opining that men are ‘more nerdy… more capable of amassing sometimes useless facts’. My girlfriend Jo saw trivia as ‘you and your mates hiding from real life’. Maybe — but why? Finally one of my interviewees made a breakthrough: trivia equals detail. ‘Women,’ she said, ‘know that the devil isn’t in the detail. That’s what men think, isn’t it? Whereas we’re more broad-brush. We want to talk about grand themes of love and death.’ Instantly this struck a chord. Recipes, for instance. As much as I love cooking, each detail must be followed to the letter. Three sprigs of thyme? Three it must be; not two, not four. Whereas Jo can improvise, adapt, see the bigger picture. A love of detail is also why men remember every line of a favourite film. We don’t set out to memorise the discussion of how much more black an album cover can be, it’s just that having watched Spinal Tap 35 times, the details get lodged in our minds. (Talking of which, have you noticed the BBC iPlayer’s volume goes up to 11? Surely no coincidence.)
Could this gender split have a scientific explanation? Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University certainly thinks so. His work has focused on differences between the male and female brains. (A qualifying remark here is that a man can possess a ‘female’ brain and vice versa — but on average each sex tends towards its type.) The male brain has a preference for ‘systemising’, which means a love of order, facts, sticking to a subject until every piece of knowledge has been exhausted. The female brain, in contrast, likes ‘empathising’: identifying other people’s thoughts and emotions, and acting accordingly.
Given a system with which it can engage — an engine, a computer, a list of batting averages — the male brain finds comfort and reassurance, and feels confident in fixing that engine, programming that computer. ‘But those are useful skills,’ I said to Simon. ‘One of my favourite pieces of trivia is that Hull City is the only football club among the top 92 whose name contains no letters you can colour in. That’s useless. Why does my brain remember that?’
‘You collect details,’ he replied, ‘without any prejudice as to which will be important. A systemising brain starts off by trying to absorb and retain as much as it can about everything, and then starts looking for patterns.’ Hence the SAS and actors. Or, because patterns can be of opposites, Ringo Starr and Shane Warne. Starr has never eaten a pizza, while Warne only eats pizza, often forcing upmarket restaurants to cook him one. Those items of trivia came to me years apart, yet now they lie cross-referenced in my memory.
Another manifestation of the gender split came during an interview with the QI team. ‘One guy asks another how he is,’ said the show’s producer John Lloyd, ‘and gets the reply, “Great, I’ve just been promoted.” Men are much more straightforward than women, you accept that. Then your wife says, “God, he looks terrible.” You say, “No, he’s fine, he just told me he’s been promoted.” She says, “I’m telling you, that guy’s marriage is in serious trouble, he’s obviously having an affair…” How do they know?’ Empathy, John, that’s how. An awareness that life isn’t all in the detail. Meanwhile, John Sessions delighted in the piece of trivia about Keith Richards having been a choirboy at the Queen’s coronation. ‘It’s such a Keith thing to do. Rather than get a knighthood, sing at the coronation as a child, then become the Prince of Darkness.’
The search for a perfect fact, though ultimately successful, brought as much joy in the process as the conclusion. Contenders obviously had to be tested for veracity. Standing outside Parliament to test whether you really do hear Big Ben on Radio 4 before you hear it ‘for real’ was a genuinely thrilling moment. Other checks revealed how fragile the nature of truth actually is. ‘All polar bears are left-handed,’ for example: the Natural History Museum were certain enough to put it on their pencils, yet accepted a correction from Polar Bears International with good grace. The question of whether America was the only country in world war two on which Germany declared war (all the others having declared war on Germany) proved impossible to settle for sure.
But then does it matter? What’s mere war compared to grand themes of love and death?
The Importance of Being Trivial: In Search of the Perfect Fact is published by Random House.