On Saturday night, I toddled up to the village hall for the fish-and-chip supper, quiz night and raffle — bring your own booze — hosted by the vicar. The hall was already packed when I walked in, and I was shown to the only one of 14 tables that wasn’t yet full and introduced to the couple seated there. I think Joan and Bill suspected me of being an imposter because they immediately interrogated me as to where in the village I lived and where in the country my strong regional accent originated. Nor did my answers seem to satisfy them. Finally, we were joined by Margaret, whom I knew. Margaret was just back from Iran. She had found the compulsory headscarf extremely irksome, she reported, and she’d caught a bug so virulent that she’d vomited over her neighbour on the plane home. But on the whole she’d enjoyed it, she said.
The atmosphere in the village hall was festive. Whoever it was that decided that what Britain needed was more ‘diversity’ had clearly never attended one of our fish-and-chip-supper-and-quiz nights. The demographic was elderly, yes. White, yes. Native-born, yes. But within this range could be seen and heard the entire spectrum of human opinion and behaviour, both comfortably within, and often far outside, the parameters set by the Mental Health Act. To a metropolitan liberal riding by on a horse our gathering would doubtless have appeared first in line for the euthanasia chamber. But this would be a mistake. In my experience, your average English villager is as prone to imprudent loves and impulsive crimes as the most sophisticated and vibrant urbanite, and with Margaret just back from Iran, and still a bit peaky, and the team on the next table audibly and raucously in the grip of the grape, this really felt like living.
We four called our makeshift team of late arrivals ‘The Wanderers’. There were four rounds of questions, with a halfway break for the raffle. The quizmaster had been taken ill an hour before the event and his prepared questions were read out with verve, if not passion, by a last-minute stand-in with a speech impediment. After each round we swapped papers with our neighbours and marked them. By the start of the fourth and final round, the Wanderers were trailing the field. In the lead, and by some margin, was a team of hairy interlopers from the next village, some of whom looked suspiciously like intellectuals.
The Wanderers began the final round confidently, however, agreeing that the volcano that erupted over the town of Pompeii was called Vesuvius. Hearing a team member on a neighbouring table venture the suggestion ‘Snowdonia’ gave us a warm, smug feeling. The next question was this: which event drew the biggest-ever crowd in the history of Wembley Stadium? Was it: a) a Billy Graham crusade rally in 1954; b) the 1923 English FA Cup final between West Ham and Bolton Wanderers; or c) the Live Aid concert in 1985. Once again, Joan’s pissed-off shrug intimated that she neither knew nor cared. Once again Brenda was physically paralysed by the mental effort required even to hazard a guess. Surely it was the 1923 FA cup final, I ventured, when the crowd was so vast that a policeman on a white horse called Billy had to clear the touchlines of spectators before the game could commence. My great-uncle was there that day, I added, one of an estimated 80,000 gatecrashers. The president of our makeshift quiz team, and honorary wielder of the Biro, said that his father had been there that day too. Again we felt confident.
In a previous round, the neighbouring Streetwalkers team had claimed a bonus point for correctly naming the author of Under the Greenwood Tree on the grounds that one of their team, a small, humorous-looking woman with steel-grey hair, was Thomas Hardy’s great-great niece. So we planned to claim an extra point for this Wembley question because two out of the four members of our team had ancestors who were present on that historic day.
In the event, we got the answer wrong. The right answer, according to the quizmaster, was the Billy Graham rally in 1954. Our vehement appeal was dismissed out of hand. As was the Puffing Billy team’s strenuous contention that an octopus is a type of squid. After the fourth-round points had been tallied, the hairy interlopers from the next village had won the quiz by a country mile. To boos and catcalls they duly trooped forward to collect their goodie bags from the vicar. As we made our way out of the village hall, Andrew from the Post Office and General Stores thought it a capital idea of mine to beat them up in the car park, but we were laughing so much we never got around to it.