Magazine article The Spectator

Trivia Really Is Very Important, You Know

Magazine article The Spectator

Trivia Really Is Very Important, You Know

Article excerpt

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? …

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