Matthew d’Ancona on the late Spectator quiz compiler, Simon Carter
I still get letters about the Impossible Quiz which Simon Carter set for our Christmas special issue. An infernally complex blend of merciless logic, M.C. Escher’s art, and very tough questions, the Thirty-Nine Steps quiz that Simon compiled and adjudicated was, in its way, a work of art. It completely foxed me, that’s for sure. Quiz-sharp readers were intrigued and, eight months on, continue to correspond with me about its devilish intricacies.
Simon’s sudden death at the age of 48 has been a terrible shock — not least because he was such a welcome new member of the extended Spectator family. I could tell how well he would fit in to our little republic of letters when he proposed a supplement to mark the 50th anniversary of the Eurovision Song Contest — and on discovering that the 2008 competition was actually the 53rd he suggested, without missing a beat, that we should do a 53rd Anniversary Supplement instead. What a man: I had looked forward to many such conversations in the future.
Since Simon died, I have learned from others how characteristic was this brazen mixture of wit, charm and intelligence. His contemporaries at Sussex University at the height of the New Romantic era in the early 1980s speak of a dazzling Fauntleroy, much influenced by David Bowie, who in his immaculate 1930s bell boy uniform looked ‘like a bad-tempered Oscar statue’.
In the spirit of that age — a Blitz spirit of a different sort — he was a gilded peacock, a club entrepreneur, a natural impresario. He went on to manage Chaka Khan and the group Brother Beyond, a boy band avant la lettre, which enjoyed considerable success, including two top ten singles, before finally disbanding in 1991.
But knowledge and linguistic games, rather than pop music, were Simon’s greatest passion. Always admired for his verbal facility (he could think of an anagram for a new acquaintance in seconds), he was a natural Scrabble champion, ranked in the top 60 in the country, and a fixture on the Scrabble scene (yes, there is such a thing).
Connected to that was his preternatural general knowledge. It was nothing short of awesome: to describe the range of subjects in which Simon was expert as ‘trivia’ would have been ridiculous. He would throw a question at you and smile with mischievous amusement as you wracked your brains for the answer. Mostly, one didn’t stand a chance. He was someone who not only retained facts but understood their interconnection, the twists and turns that make information fascinating.
Those who knew him much, much better than I describe a man who dealt with his recurring cancer with dignity, never lost his magnificent sense of humour and always made time for friends. My memories are all good: a dinner at the Ivy with his great friends Deb and Matt, in which he cased the joint like a Hollywood starlet checking that the décor was up to scratch; a drinks party at the Spectator to which he brought his own iPod, speaker-dock and Kylie’s choreographer; and, most of all, the infectious enthusiasm with which he masterminded that Christmas quiz.
I had hoped he would set one again this year, even more difficult if such a thing were possible. But it was not to be. Simon Carter has gone to Heaven (the real thing this time, not the club). And I bet he is busy playing Scrabble with Oscar Wilde and Jean Cocteau — and winning.