||'Can You Answer This?
by George A. Birmingham
Jones was fortunate enough to pick up a copy of this book in a second-hand
shop in Aylesbury. It
was first published in May 1927 by Ernest Benn Limited of Bouverie House,
Fleet Street, (the copy I have from the Ninth impression made in
might just be the first ‘quiz book’ ever published in this country.
It reveals, in the sort of questions it asks the reader (there are
some 2,000 in all), what people ‘knew’, or might have been expected to
know, in the decades immediately preceding WWII.
introduction to Mr Birmingham’s book is all the more illuminating in
that he furnishes the reader with some indication as to how folk from
different age-groups and backgrounds fared with the questions,
highlighting where some did well and others much less so.
is a new pastime.
is most amusing, and, once begun, irresistible.
I know this to be true, for I have tried it on several people.
Two Public School boys - and heaven knows they ought to be tired of
being questioned - clamoured for more, and became in their insistence very
daughters of the horse leach
(... see "Sitter" Six, Q. 9.).
At a luncheon-party where I introduced the game a number of
intelligent people became incapable of rational conversation, and for
several hours would do nothing but test each other’s general knowledge.
One day after tea I was forced to be late for an important
engagement by the eagerness of my friends for fresh questions.
And it was a very important engagement,
I had promised to address a Women’s Institute on Hungarian
The Americans, who appear to have
invented this game, demanded eight fresh editions of a book like this one
in the course of the month of February, a month in which there are only
twenty-eight days. What a lot
of good things come from America originally (crossword puzzles, Ford cars,
and President Wilson), and how little grateful we are !
seems at first sight a drawback to any pastime.
But it is not really so. Men
- especially Englishmen and Americans - have been so made by God that hey
cannot enjoy a game in any comfort until they have persuaded themselves
that it is doing them good in some way.
Unless someone had accused the Duke of Wellington of saying that
the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton (…), we
should not be happy about the time we spend on cricket and football.
With that falsehood on our lips, backed by the name of the Iron
Duke (…), we know that we are saving the Empire when we watch a Cup
Final. Most bridge-players
believe, or profess to believe, that the game develops intelligence.
Those who do crossword puzzles soothe the consciences over the loss
of hours of time every day by saying they are learning to spell, or
finding out what ergs are, and emus.
When we put a modest half-crown on a Derby sweep (…) we know that
we are encouraging racing, and thereby improving the breed of horses,
which is a very virtuous thing to do.
But all these are, as we know very well, mere pretences, fig-leaves
(…) with which we cover the nakedness of our self-indulgence.
But there is no pretence about the value of this new amusement.
The man who learns the answers to the two thousand questions in
this book can win a scholarship, if he is young enough to go in for
scholarships. If he is too
old for that, he will place himself on a lofty pedestal in society.
mild pastimes are not. Patience
is a solitary game. Chess
problems make those who indulge in them morose,
Acrostics sour the tempers of the most amiable, so that their
fellow shun their society. Crosswords
are the source of extreme irritation to those who occupy the same room as
the solver. What is more
annoying than to be called upon for a word in four letters beginning with
“g” and meaning female young just when you are deep in an article
about the Budget? But this
new game is best played in company. The
pleasure of it is increased when it is shared.
Nothing is more delightful than to discover you are the only person
in the room who knows what the Pentateuch is (…), or to find out that
Rudolph Valentino (..), whom you have failed to identify, is, after all, a
person whom no one with your superior kind of culture can be expected to
know about. It is well worth
the sense of humiliation which comes of missing a question to be able to
set up that defence of your ignorance afterwards.
is an amusement in which the elderly have a distinct advantage over the
is true of scarcely any other pastime.
In all outdoor sports, and almost all indoor games, “hungry
generations tread us down” (Special Paper on Familiar Quotations, Q.
10). But here we get
the better of the young. I
have tried these papers of questions on various people of different ages,
and by far the best score was made by a lady who is several times over a
grandmother. Her grandsons
defeated her occasionally, though not often, over questions about
broadcasting (…). She had
them every time over things which were important before they were born,
like The Yellow Book (…).
The fact is that there is a blind spot in all of us.
We know the things that are written in history-books.
We know the things that came within our own memory.
But between the places at which the history books stop and memory
begins there is a gap, and, since history-books are continually being
brought up to date, that gap is far larger for the young than the old.
compiling and arranging of these papers of questions was, though toilsome,
almost as delightful as the use of them will be.
It was done by a syndicate of six, with the help of such casual
labour from outside as could be procured.
The ages, professions, and interest of the six are very varied.
So are those of the casual helpers.
Some of us are over sixty. Some
of us are under twenty. One
is a business man. One is an
enthusiastic musician. Three
of the original six are graduates of a University.
One, and one casual, are undergraduates.
One is a horse-lover. One
sails boats. All read books,
but different books, Three of
the original syndicate are married. The
other three are not even engaged to be married.
One is interested in ornithology.
One is a chess player. Another
is good at astronomy. Not one
of all who have contributed to the book is a schoolmaster, schoolmistress,
don, lecturer or otherwise professionally engaged in education of any
we have ensured - or hope we have ensured - that the questions cover a
great part of the field of common knowledge.
We have made every effort to exclude questions which could only be
answered by specialists. The
effort has been the source of prolonged debates, as eager as those of the
Hampton Court Conferences (…). … Our aim was to ask only those
questions as intelligent and educated people ought to know.
Everyone, I imagine, will agree that we have succeeded brilliantly.
We have not, perhaps, covered the whole field of “common
knowledge.” Another two
thousand questions would be required for that.
But we have not strayed outside it.
proof of this is required, here it is.
book is divided into three sections.
First, “Sitters”, that is to say,
questions as easy to answer as sitting birds are to shoot.
These we tried on sixteen boys attending primary school, all under
the age of fourteen, and on twenty girls of the same kind and age. The
boys secured 43 per cent, and the girls 37 per cent.
Any adult ought to make over 50 per cent.
come twenty-five (sets of) general questions, and the aim has been to make
them increasingly difficult. Two
Public School boys and two undergraduates were tried with the earlier and
supposedly easier of these papers. They
scored 56 per cent. Two other
Public School boys, both of them exceptionally clever, were tried with the
later papers, and made 67 per cent.
last section of the book contains papers on special subjects, though no
specialist questions. And
here the scoring was very varied. A
highly intelligent girl made full marks on Fairy Tales and Legends, but
crashed disastrously over quotations.
She complained that she knew nearly them nearly all, but could not
fix the author of a single one. I
myself did very well in quotations, but scored a bare 30 per cent on
discovery of blind patches in our knowledge is exceptionally interesting.
A boy who answered without hesitation the question about Ohm’s
law (…) and Halley’s Comet (…) had never heard what God tempers the
wind to (…), or what an ill bird does (…).
A little girl who answered all the “Sitters” about birds’
eggs, flowers, and trees, thought that cockles came to us from Russia.
A lady who knew everything we asked about Italian artists and their
work did not know that Early English and Perpendicular are styles of
Gothic architecture. Scarcely
anyone recognised the source of lines, surely tags, taken from Gray’s
find out our blind spots is a great advantage, if we are, as I hope
everyone is, anxious to improve ourselves.
We know, after going through these questions, just where to begin.
I find, for instance, that I am shamefully ignorant of the names
and reputations of movie stars. From
this on I intend to stop outside every picture house I pass, study the
posters, and make a mental, if necessary a pencil, note of who is
“featured.” People who
come to grief over acolytes and chasubles ought either to take to going to
Anglo-Catholic Churches, or else to reading the Church
Times. And so on.
Having found out your weak spot, it is plainly a duty, and ought to
be a pleasure, to strengthen it. It
is also a duty, and certainly a pleasure, to strengthen the weak spots of
FOR PLAYING THIS AMUSING AND FASCINATING GAME
game can be played alone, though this is not recommended.
For solitary play there are only three rules.
The player must not look at the answers beforehand.
The player must not give himself a mark for anything which he
“really knew quite well, but forgot for a moment,” and only remembered
after looking at the answer.
The player must not say afterwards that he scored 60 per cent . on
any paper when he really scored 30 per cent. or less.
-- The game can
be played by any number from two to eleven players.
There are nine rules for social play.
One payer reads out the questions.
The others answer in turn. The
reader is forbidden to alter the wording of questions in such a way as to
suggest the answer when it comes to the turn of the player whom he
particularly likes --his wife, for instance.
Partially answered questions must not be passed on.
Only the questioner is allowed to look at the answers, and he is
forbidden to boast that he knew the answer before he looked.
Logical definitions are not required-or supplied by the
compilers-to questions beginning with “What is?”
Any answer which shows that the answerer knows what the thing
really is is sufficient.
Benevolent fathers, uncles, or maiden aunts should be encouraged to
offer prizes for the best answerers.
Where no such person can be found, the players may contribute to
form a pool, which is taken by the player with the highest percentage of
Where this is regarded as gambling (and therefore wrong), the whole
pool can be given to a deserving charity, named by the winning player.
(In cases where any difficulty arises, the compilers of the book
will be pleased to name the charity.)
The game can be played equally well without prizes or stakes.
The honour of scoring sixty per cent. on an advanced paper is
sufficient reward for any reasonable man.
player who says that a question is unfair is to be fined two marks.
If he argues that an answer given in the book is wrong he is fined
five marks, and not allowed to play again until he has apologised."
Some sample questions:
Buster Keaton ?
Moving picture comedian
postage on a letter to the USA ?
last of the daily hours of prayer in most monastic rules
is the characteristic of the daughters
of the horse leach
in the opinion of Solomon ?
greed (Prov. xxx. 15)
wrote the following and in what work; “No
Keats, "Ode to a
"The Roll Call" ?
|Who are the
The late German Imperial
|What is the pons
The fifth proposition in
the First Book of Euclid
With the exception of the quote from Keats all the
foregoing come from the section marked "Sitters"!
We earnestly hope we've not infringed copyright
in reproducing these extracts. We have no way of knowing whether, 73
years later, if Mr. Birmingham is still with us. Or, if not, how
long it is since he passed away. If he was a young man in
1927 we was perhaps called up to fight in WWII, with all the attendant
perils that engendered, but if, as one suspects, he was one of the
compilers over the age of 60, it is likely to be some 50 or 60 years since
his demise. Anyway, if you know different please contact us and we
will take immediate steps to bring ourselves within the law!