I’ve introduced a number of friends to a creative little network in Aberdare. I’ve got in touch with the author of my forthcoming copy-editing project – and his wife is now following me on Twitter. I’ve helped Geoff E. to polish off an essay he’s been working on for ages. I’ve drunk an awful lot of beer, eaten quite a lot, and made plans to catch up with more people over the next few weeks.
I was even exempt from the usual cretinous drugged-up Valleys lowlife that usually comes out on a Thursday. Goddess was clearly feeling kindly disposed towards me last week.
Yesterday I logged into my emails and found one from a company named SRO. I’m on their mailing list purely because they were involved with my audition for the revived TV quiz show Fifteen to One a year or so ago (see ‘The Game’s Afoot‘).
Oddly enough, I’ve been unsubscribing from mailing lists recently, because I’m getting more junk mail online than I do through my front door. The only reason SRO got through is because I haven’t got around to doing them yet.
As things turned out, that was probably just as well.
The email was an invitation from an independent TV company, inviting people to apply to be contestants on a BBC4 quiz show called Hive Minds. It said something like ‘Do you answer the questions on Only Connect and University Challenge? Do you like crosswords and word games?’ Two out of two ain’t bad. I’d never heard of the show – in fact, I thought maybe it was something still in production – but it was probably worth thirty seconds of my time. I filled in my details and submitted them online.
Only about an hour later my phone rang. It came as a bit of a relief, really. I spent ages last week potching with the bloody thing, trying to set up a ringtone. At least now I know it works. (So does everyone else who was in Aberdare Library at the time, but it’s early days yet. I’ll probably find the volume control in another week or so.) It was a London number. For a moment I thought it might have been my contact at Orion Books. Then I wondered whether it was a previously unknown proofreading client, wanting to take advantage of my services. I answered it when I was halfway down the stairs, just to be on the safe side.
The caller turned out to be Bethan, a production assistant on Hive Minds. We chatted for a while before she asked me about a dozen general knowledge questions.
‘I’ll warn you now,’ Bethan said at the outset, ‘they are quite hard.’
‘They can’t be as weird as the questions on Round Britain Quiz,’ I replied, and Bethan laughed. That sounded ominous to begin with (see ‘A Clash of Cultures‘).
Well, I kicked the first one straight between the posts without even having to think about it. It was a question on books, after all. Not just that, but one of the most renowned and influential books of the last two centuries.
That was pretty much the story for the rest of the phone audition. I made a couple of educated guesses, and I know I definitely got one wrong, but Bethan was pretty impressed by my performance. She’d said that, even if I got the answers wrong, an educated guess was better than nothing. (I checked a couple of my hunches later on, and they were right. The job’s a good ‘un.)
Bethan asked me if I knew anyone else who might be interested in taking part. I mentioned a couple of likely suspects, and she asked me to pass her number on to them. The game involves teams of three, so if three friends want to enter together, all the better. She more or less told me on the phone that I’d be invited to the actual audition in Cardiff, and to wait for an email.
Less than an hour later that email arrived. I’ve got to go to Cardiff a fortnight today, to meet some more people involved in the show.
I downloaded a couple of editions to watch last night, and then sent some texts and emails. To judge from the underwhelming response, I’ll be in Cardiff on my own. One of the guys I thought of suffers from quite severe dyslexia, so the game wouldn’t play to his strengths anyway. The other just bottled out immediately, as I’d feared he would. That leaves one more person whom I’m hoping will bite the bullet and make the call.
There’s no guarantee I’ll qualify for the show, of course, but I needed an excuse to go to Cardiff before Xmas. Hive Minds – a show I didn’t even know existed thirty-six hours ago – has just given me that excuse.
See – that’s what can happen when you go out in Aberdare on a Thursday afternoon for just the one. Bizarre, or what?
I’ve written before about my involvement with quizzes in Aberdare (and occasionally elsewhere). Late on New Year’s Eve, in the pub, I was chatting to my friends Kelvin and Mark about the now defunct Cynon Valley Quiz League. It got me thinking about the good old days, when our long winter Sundays were made bearable only by a couple of pints and a good quiz in decent company.
Dad was responsible for my initiation to the whole pub quiz phenomenon, thirty years ago. It was one of those chance events which spun my life into a whole new direction.
I was home from university for the Easter break. The Mount Pleasant team was unexpectedly a player short for a Sunday evening fixture. Dad phoned the house to ask if I’d step in. I headed straight for the pub, conveniently situated at the top of my street.
I already knew one of the team. Brian Hopkins had been a teacher in Comin School when I was a pupil there. At this time, the other regular players were Jeff Francis, Glan Toms, Paul David, Derek Pidgeon, and Dad himself.
I can’t remember who was on holiday that particular evening; I can’t remember much about the quiz. I do remember that I had a good time, answered a few fairly obscure questions, and found myself roped in as a regular member of the squad.
The Cynon Valley Quiz League had already been in existence for a few years. At the time, the ‘trivia’ boom was sweeping the country, as Marcus Berkmann recalls in his very funny and entertaining book Brain Men. Pub landlords were augmenting (or even replacing) their fruit machines with quiz machines. Urban legends abounded about individuals who were banned from every pub within shouting distance for cleaning out the quiz machines on regular occasions. I’m sure I know three people for whom that must have been true.
The trivia boom meant that the rarefied atmosphere of long-running programmes like Mastermind, University Challenge and Brain of Britain was gradually enlivened by a host of TV shows based around ‘general knowledge’ questions. Most of them fell by the wayside, but the wave continues to roll slowly over the daytime schedules. Local leagues were formed, as enterprising landlords decided that a quiz night could be a good way to put bums on seats.
The Cynon Valley Quiz League was one of them. Over time it grew large enough to encompass two divisions of eight teams apiece. I remember some of the teams which came and went over the years: Hirwaun Football Club; the Welsh Harp/Cross Inn, Trecynon (two adjoining pubs which were knocked into one huge place in the early 1980s); the Tonglwydfawr, Cwmdare; the Globe Inn, Cwmaman; the Mount Pleasant Inn, Cwmaman; the Ivy Bush, Cwmaman; the Blaengwawr, Aberaman; the Bird in Hand, Aberdare; the Castle Inn, Aberaman; the Hibernian Club, Mountain Ash; the Rock Inn, Aberaman; the Plough Inn, Aberaman; the Top Club, Abercynon; the Morning Star, Aberdare; the Cap Coch, Abercwmboi; the Melbourne Star, Abercwmboi; the Jeffreys Arms, Mountain Ash; the Brynffynnon, Llanwynno; the Conway, Aberdare; the Bodwigiad Arms, Hirwaun; the Full Moon, Trecynon; the Marquis, Aberdare; the Top Club, Cwmaman; the Bottom Club, Cwmaman … (This last one isn’t a secret gay establishment, by the way – the Cwmaman clubs are at either end of the long hill running through the village.)
Even if your team was doomed to spend its days towards the bottom of Division 2, the Cynon Valley Quiz League was a welcome distraction. It was a good way to spend a Sunday evening when nothing was happening, a chance to make new friends, and an excuse to raise an elbow in some far-flung pubs.
During Ron Roach’s time running the pub, the Mount Pleasant (Trecynon) always fielded a strong squad (*modest cough*) amongst very strong competition. After entering the league in Division 2, they quickly made it to the top flight and stayed there. In 1980 Dad and the rest of the lads won the championship. Ron displayed their shield proudly above the bar, and Dad kept his own trophy on the mantelpiece until he died.
Dad and I left the Mount Pleasant team after Ron moved on to pastures new and we moved to Llwydcoed, more or less at the same time. I kicked my heels for a few years, occasionally doing Paul David’s charity quiz at the Glandover with various pick-up teams (including Dad from time to time). After a while, I was recruited to the Cross Inn side, with Gill, Alan, Vanessa, and some other people I can’t remember after all this time.
After that I was head-hunted by Colin Jones, the player/manager of the newly-formed Glandover B team. By day Colin was a florist and market gardener; every Sunday night, he wielded his authority over the Blossoms. Over a couple of years Dad’s trophy was joined by others, as the Blossoms took the second division by storm in the 1991–2 season.
By this time I’d taken the plunge and entered the Channel 4 show Fifteen to One. I was resting between engagements, so Dad and I used to watch it every afternoon. At the end of the show one day, William G. Stewart gave out the address to write to if you wanted to try your luck. I wrote to Regent Television, and a few months later I was invited to an audition in Bristol. In November 1991 I had my fifteen minutes’ fame and made it into the final three on the day.
I wasn’t the only CVQL player to appear on the show. The Blaengwawr stalwarts Richard (‘Dino’) Dennis and Alan Everett both made it onto the small screen within a couple of years. I’m pretty sure Alan also appeared on The $64,000 Question at about the same time. For my part, I never had the bottle to enter any of the big money shows – but I’ve lost count of the number of friends who’ve told me, ‘If I ever go on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, I want you as one of my phone-a-friends.’
It was over twenty years later that I decided to throw my hat into the Brain of Britain ring (see ‘It’s Grand Oop North!’) and lived to tell the tale. I discovered a couple of weeks ago that there’s a five-year embargo period until contestants can have a second bite of the cherry. By then I’ll be way too old to revisit that terrific rock club in Manchester.
I can’t remember exactly how my next foray into quizzing came about. I certainly can’t remember the year, but I know the occasion was either Comic Relief or Children in Need. I suggested to Janet in the Cambrian (Aberdare) that I could put a fun quiz together as a fund-raiser. This was before social media, of course, so word got around the old-fashioned way. I shamelessly ripped off Paul David’s tried and tested formula (picture quiz, questions, music round) and we were good to go. On the Wednesday evening the pub was packed, and everyone had a great time. We raised quite a decent sum for the appeal, and people thanked me for a job well done.
I’d unwittingly set a precedent. At the end of the night, Carole asked Janet if she could set a quiz the following week. After that one, someone else volunteered to take the helm. That was Goddess knows how long ago. Eventually we settled into a sort-of rota of about eight regulars to set the quiz, and a hardcore following of between fifteen and thirty people taking part every week. As well as the regular format, every so often I’d set a ‘Special’ to mark a particular occasion, including a Eurovision theme, a US Independence Day theme, a French theme – for our French friends – and so forth. Every Xmas I’d compile a mammoth Review of the Year. I remember starting work on my first Xmas Special on the Sunday afternoon of the August Bank Holiday, in fact. (It’s all in the preparation, you know!)
The Cambrian also entered a team for the Whitbread Pub Partnership competition in 1994: Simon M. (Janet’s son), Dino, Dai Wyatt, John Chivers, and me. We got to travel a bit further afield during that season – to a pub at the bottom end of the Cynon Valley, to another one in Hopkinstown outside Pontypridd, and one in Merthyr Vale. As I recall, we won the final (against the King William, Barry) on the very last question of the evening. We won a handsome cup for the pub and my trophy joined the others on the shelf.
Over Xmas in 1996, I stayed with Sam and her friend Cathy K. in Palmers Green. Sam was working the Sunday night, so Cathy and I walked down to the Fox on Green Lanes and did the quiz there. We didn’t win, but we had a bit of fun and pulled a few answers out of left field. (I’d completely forgotten about that night until I read the part about the New River in Iain Sinclair’s book London Orbital yesterday. Cathy and I crossed the New River on the way home. It’s really not worth making a special trip to see it.)
When James T. was running the Whitcombe in Aberdare, he asked me if I’d put a squad together from scratch: Gaz, Julia, Deno, Liz W., my good self, and (occasionally) Dad. After years of competitive quizzing, we’d accidentally stumbled across a dream team. In our first season (1999-2000) we stormed Division 2 and were promoted to the top flight.
I also won the Division 2 Singles title in that season. My sarcastic Letters to the Editor (both published and unpublished) were regularly dropping through the letterbox of 19 Commercial Street at the time. My individual photo appeared in print the following week. (Obviously there was so much coverage of the presentation evening that the Leader had to run it over two weeks.) I had visions of the editor seeing my name attached to it and thinking, ‘So that’s what the bastard looks like!’ All the while, the trophy shelf kept expanding.
Even though we were only in it for the fun (and the odd trophy), there was money to be made on occasion.
My friend Andrew L. and I were playing the Monopoly quiz machine in the Cambrian one Saturday evening. We’d dropped a few small prizes, and it became apparent that the machine was about to pay out. We threw another pound in and decided to play it right to the wire. We couldn’t believe it when both Park Lane and Mayfair lit up. We’d dropped the jackpot – twenty quid. I don’t think it had been done before.
Andrew looked at me with a huge smile on his face.
‘We’re playing the ‘double game’, remember?’
That meant that we’d doubled our stake, but also doubled our prize fund. If you’ve never heard forty shiny pound coins crashing into the payout tray – believe me, it’s a beautiful sound. We changed our winnings at the bar, and without any physical effort we managed to fund our entire night out. It can be done!
My last foray into the CVQL came when Kelvin and Mark persuaded me to join the Marquis team. The Marquis is a big pub/restaurant on the outskirts of Aberdare, and it was pretty much the operational headquarters of the league.
I’ve never been keen on the place. In fact, I’ve only set foot in there twice: the first time was when Gaz and I officially registered the Whitcombe team; the second time was one Sunday night when I had to pick up the questions. After some arguments I accepted Kelvin and Mark’s invitation, but on the strict proviso that I was only available for away matches. It was the 2002–3 season, and we won the Knockout Cup.
That was the last addition to the trophy shelf at home. I’d started to lose interest, and the league had begun to decline too.
The wave of pub closures which broke upon the Valleys meant that we lost a substantial number of venues in a fairly short time: the Morning Star, Cap Coch, Melbourne Star, Ivy Bush, Bird in Hand, Corner House, Mount Pleasant (Cwmaman), Hirwaun RFC and the Bodwigiad (among others) have all vanished from the Valleys Virtual Pub Crawl.
In the name of progress, other pubs were being converted into one large room. That’s all very well for a fun quiz, like the Cambrian Wednesday Wingdings, but it’s useless if you’re trying to have a serious competition.
As the traditional bar/lounge layout disappeared, the Cynon Valley Quiz League started to dissolve. There were other factors at play, too. Older people stopped coming out, restricted by the lack of public transport. Younger people drifted away as they started families. It was difficult to attract new teams. Slowly but surely the quizzes were replaced by all-day football on TV and live music or karaoke in the evenings.
The CVQL dwindled to one division, then to half a dozen teams, and died altogether a few years ago. You’d be hard-pressed to find a decent pub quiz these days. Apparently there’s one in Thereisnospoon every so often, but I’ve never sampled it.
Remarkably (considering that it started as a one-off), the Wednesday night quiz in the Cambrian is still a fixture of the Aberdare social calendar. I called in there a fortnight ago, but it wasn’t the same. I don’t think I’ll bother again.
In spite of people’s best efforts, I doubt if we’ll ever return to the heyday of the eighties and nineties. With so many pubs having wifi nowadays, it hardly seems worth even setting a quiz. All that an unscrupulous player needs to do is to ‘go for a smoke’, log onto the Cloud on his/her mobile phone, and search out every missing answer. It’s totally against the spirit of the early trivia contests, which relied on one’s ability to recall a truly broad range of general knowledge.
I salute the good men and women of the Cynon Valley Quiz League, whose vast store of facts (and tremendous recall) sustained the tournament for two decades and then some. I raise my hat to Alan Everett, who somehow managed to generate nearly ninety questions, covering all imaginable topics, every week for six months of the year, year in and year out – as well as the questions for the individual play-offs.
I raise a glass to the memory of Paul David, Colin Jones, Alan Swanson, Norman the newsagent from Hirwaun, and too many other mainstays of the league who died too young.
Finally I’d like to thank Dad himself, who first got me involved with the bizarre hobby which has sustained my interest (on and off) for three decades.
With that breadth of general knowledge and wealth of experience, I bet there’s one barnstorming team playing in the Undying Lands Quiz League this weekend.
BERKMANN, M. (2000) Brain Men: The insider’s guide to quizzing. London: Abacus.
Being a Non-Linear Account of the Life and Opinions of The Author, Cross-referenced and Illustrated, with Occasional Hesitations, Repetitions and Deviations.
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