ABOUT THE QUIZ

I first encountered the literary quiz called Nemo’s Almanac round about 1990, when the novelist Alan Hollinghurst was the editor.  A friend read an article about it and sent it to me, and I was immediately captivated by the small, slightly austere pamphlet with its thematically organised and, I thought, completely mysterious quotations. For months I tried to track them down, discovering new reference books in the library, keeping my increasingly dog-eared Nemo in my pocket all the time, phrases sometimes running round and round in my head like earworms. I still didn’t do very well: my first score was 142 out of a possible 730. But I was hooked. And I am not the only one to have fallen for its charm. Nemo’s Almanac has been quietly appearing every year since 1892. 

 

The first issues were called 'Nemo’s Illustrated Almanac' and had a brief and apt quotation as a legend running along the top of the front cover (In 1895 it was ‘Wit’s Pedlar’, the following year ‘This fellow picks up wit as pigeons peas’.) In recent years it has settled down to a regular pattern of quotations arranged according to monthly themes, but when it started it was much more varied. For a start, it was an actual almanac, including memorable anniversaries, phases of the moon, saints’ days and the like. A Twickenham widow and governess called Annie E. Larden started selling it to a range of subscribers in 1892 as a quiz that had ‘evolved … from a holiday task set for her charges’.

 

More than a century has passed since then, and although it has changed considerably over the years, the Almanac is still going strong; in 1997 Alan Hollinghurst passed the editorship on to the late Gerard Benson, poet and anthologist (and one of the Barrow Poets, for readers with long memories); he was followed ten years later by the poet, actor and broadcaster Nigel Forde, who in 2016 handed the editorship to me. 

 

The cultural world the competition finds itself in today is very far removed from its innocent earlier years. The internet has made it possible to track down even the most recondite of quotations in almost no time at all, which means that it ought to be possible to polish off a whole Nemo in an afternoon. But why would anybody want to do that? If you deny yourself the instant gratification of Google and the vast array of available databases, you find that a whole hinterland of investigative possibility opens up. Finding quotations without electronic assistance means reading (or re-reading) novels, flipping through volumes of poetry and prose, poring over anthologies of writing from the last five centuries, day after day, month after month, for the best part of a year; looking for some half-remembered turn of phrase or description or snatch of dialogue, all for the unparalleled pleasure of the moment of discovery. And there are plenty of other pleasures, even sociable ones, to be found on the way (‘Hey, listen, I didn’t know X had written poems like this, did you?’ and ‘You remember when I said Y was such a turgid writer, and you disagreed? Well I’ve just been re-reading him, and I was right.’) 

 

You can ask the advice of everyone you know, friends and relations, workmates, casual acquaintances. Some of the quotations, if I’m anything to go by, stick in your mind forever. Lines from Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem, ‘On a Raised Beach’, for instance: ‘I study you glout and gloss, but have / No cadrans to adjust you with’ ran round my brain for so long that I’ll never forget them. And for no particular reason, Edith Sitwell’s words ‘Said the musty Justice Mompesson’ stuck too, probably because of the half-rhyme between ‘musty’ and ‘Justice’. It’s a matter of time. Like slow food, or long-distance walking, undertaking this might seem a luxury, a self-indulgence, or a waste of time, but like them it can be – and I would argue it is – beneficial and restorative. Competitors who subscribe to the almanac always have the best part of a year to work out their answers and send them in, so there’s space for obsession to take hold, and plenty of time for leisurely investigations. 

 

The quotations in Nemo’s Almanac often contain passing clues to the author’s identity – some stylistic signature, some internal allusion or reference, or just the subject matter; but it can take a long time musing on them before they swim into focus. Writers are all different, just as people are different, and it’s only by absorbing their work slowly that the range of their world view emerges. In recent years, something of this pleasure has been lost. Our grandparents and their grandparents were used to storing things in their memories – information, stories, scraps of verse or whole poems, songs, hymns, chunks of the Bible. All this is differently available to us in our reliance on our electronic resources. The advantage we have is that most questions can be answered almost immediately. The disadvantage is that the knowledge (or information) we get that way seems to have less purchase on our minds and can disappear as quickly as it comes. In many ways, Nemo’s Almanac might seem a strange and quaint survival, despite the extent to which it has changed since the 1890s, but though at first acquaintance it might appear out of place in the twenty-first century, in fact it is more engaging than ever. 

 

Both the process of searching and the writings themselves can strengthen parts of the mind the internet cannot reach. The rhythms of poetry, the balance and structure of well-written prose, the patterning of life into language – these can all take a stronger hold in our minds than the endless flow of information that now defines our lives. It also broadens our knowledge; speaking just for myself, I know that taking part in the competition over the last twenty-five years has led me to read hundreds of writers, and quantities of novels and poems I might never have thought of reading otherwise, from the poetry of Jan Struther, Charles Cotton and T. E. Brown to novels by Thackeray, William Plomer and May Sinclair, and I’m sure that the experience has widened my appreciation and deepened my understanding. And of course I’ve read many more novels, plays, and poems that didn’t contain the quotation I was looking for than those that did – and that’s good, too.

 

A hundred years ago, before they were abandoned, the direct questions in Nemo reflected a very different world. I don’t know, for example, how I would set about answering a question like this one from 1902: ‘By what three virtues is the frame of British freedom to be sustained?’ (please don’t send in your suggestions). Others were more allusive than this, such as ‘How did Aunt Deborah know that the Squire was a bachelor?’: hard to answer if you haven’t read Kate Coventry by Whyte Melville, which these days practically nobody (including me) has. They sound halfway between crossword clues and the kind of questions favoured by BBC Radio 4’s ‘Round Britain Quiz’, or the Christmas quiz that appears in The Guardian newspaper each year set for the pupils of King William’s College in the Isle of Man. Nemo’s quotations, because they are just quotations, have none of this cryptic impenetrability. They are just quite hard to pin down. Not all of them – some are quite straightforwardly recognisable. But most take a bit of puzzling over and a bit of research.

 

The tone and the competitors have changed, too. In the early Almanacs, there was a note to reassure readers that ‘Biblical allusions are never intended or allowed.’ And as Alan Hollinghurst points out in his history of the quiz, there were some encouraging patriotic themes in the wartime editions. There are plenty of notable names among past competitors, too: bishops and aristocrats, civil servants, writers and academics (the literary critic Dame Helen Gardner was apparently famous for talking about nothing else at dinner parties and Oxford high tables, and made her research students look for answers, but to her great chagrin never actually achieved full marks, despite being a frequent runner-up). But while new names are added each year, the pseudonyms that many competitors once used have fallenout of fashion. Gone are ‘The Mollpolls’ and ‘Merrytwang’, ‘Yam’, ‘Hilarius’, and ‘Badger’, although one or two, like ‘Gli Amici’, still survive. As you enter into the quiz, and join the historic ranks of Nemo competitors, perhaps you will be tempted to resurrect this tradition and come up with your own. I still haven’t settled on one myself, after nearly thirty years; but as editor, my pleasure has to come from choosing the quotations rather than tracking them down.