Ever thought of applying to be on University Challenge? This week, Benedict Spence shares his experiences of the selection process, as well as a brush with his inner ape.


It’s never a good omen, when taking a test to determine your suitability for a television programme based on academic aptitude, if you struggle to find the room it’s in. It’s even worse when you spend a solid four minutes staring at a sign marked ‘Wolfson Suite’ with an arrow pointing right, having an internal row with yourself, trying work out what it means:

‘Should I bear right?’

‘No, you div, that’s a wall.’

‘Sure? I mean, there might be a door somewhere…’

‘By all means, try, but it’s a solid wall.’

‘Perhaps it means I should proceed through these doors and then bear right?’

‘Surely the arrow would point ahead and then veer off at a right-angle?’

‘Haha, ‘right-angle.’

‘I wouldn’t put that in, it’s not very funny.’

‘Wait, hang on, I don’t see a right turn through there, either.’

‘That librarian is staring at me. She knows why I’m here, there’s no other reason I’d be in the Harold Cohen. Now she knows I’m a fraud. Or a fucking mental case. I can’t even follow these basic bloody instructions. I think it’s time to leave now, you tried your best.’

‘Just go through the doors Ben.’

‘No, no, then I’ll really look like a twat if I try and walk through a different wall and have to come back.’

‘Not as much of a twat as you look standing here, Chief-fucking-Bromden. Christ alive man, grow a pair, just walk through.’

‘No, no, no, it’s fine, I think I’ll just retrace my steps; there was a floorplan in the foyer.’


I reminded myself that Einstein used to be found standing in the middle of the street where he lived staring at the houses because he could never remember which one was his. I’m not sure whether or not that was true, I probably read it somewhere on the internet when I should have been preparing for this test. Besides, you can excuse Einstein. He was busy dealing with bigger issues and couldn’t spare the grey matter for such trivialities. It cheered me up, though, to know that even brainboxes struggle with simple tasks, so there was no shame. Besides, this test would mainly tax my ability to absorb knowledge like a sponge, not my orienteering skills. You wouldn’t expect a sponge to be able to navigate a library. You probably would expect a person to, though, especially when confronted with a sign and clear directions. Eventually, I swallowed my pride and asked the librarian. It was, in fact, just through those doors. She looked at me like I was simple.

The Woolfson Suite was very stylish in 1870 or whenever it was built; so stylish they’ve never felt the need to refurbish it, save for the budget desktops that exist all over campus. It faintly resembles every office you’ve ever seen in films like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or the Imitation Game, only how they’d have been decorated if it had been left to… well, the University of Liverpool. A lot of wood, but probably not the sort that was especially expensive. We’re talking £40, max. Then again, anybody who commissioned such crimes against humanity as the Cypress Building would consider the Woolfson Suite, by comparison, stately. I signed in and sat down at a computer, taking stock of my surroundings. The hangover I’d carefully cultivated over the course of the day was approaching the ‘dull’ phase (for the past few weeks I’ve been experiencing an odd craving for rosé, but in order to negate any loss of manliness, I’ve taken to drinking it in pints, such as during the previous evening, when I’d decided this whole University Challenge lark was doomed anyway). Assessing the competition, around 20 people, I came to the conclusion, entirely by the scientific method of judging people on how damn fabulous their shoes were, that if nothing else, I was probably the most sexually active one in the room, which is almost certainly the first time in my life that this has happened. Except perhaps the time I taught in an African girls school. Yeah… that would have been weird.

Waiting to begin, a chap named Tom arrived. Nice guy, Tom. Did a bit of student radio and was involved in a few plays back in the day. I tried to catch his eye with a knowing smile, and received blankness in return. ‘Well’ thought I ‘fuck you then, Tom. I hope you make the team just to watch Paxman shaft you. I hope he forgets to lube his fist up first.’ In hindsight, this was a mean thing to think. He almost certainly didn’t see me. He’s still a nice guy. I hope he doesn’t hold this against me. I was probably just angry at the world having stood for four minutes staring at a door whilst being judged by a librarian.

I still wouldn’t mind seeing that show, though. So best of luck, Tom.

A woman with an expression as enthusiastic as Rolf Harris in an old folk’s home read through the instructions and told us to begin. Questions 1-4 asked us what our course was, whether we would still be a student this time next year, whether we had appeared on University Challenge before, and our areas of expertise. ‘A-ha, fuckers’ I thought triumphantly, ‘this is where we separate the men from the boys! The wheat from the chaff! The-‘

What word can mean, in mathematics, an arrangement of elements into rows and columns; in biology, substance between cells; and, in geology, the material in which, for example, gemstones are embedded?

‘Oh. Bollocks.’

A little bit of context here. It’s not as if I’m a complete moron. I am, to my shame, one of those people who sit and watch University Challenge trying to answer before the contestants (or Pater in the corner) and occasionally wrack up a respectable tally. I’m usually not bad at literature, art or music. I’m pretty good at philosophy and politics. I take History out for a night on the town before making her pick up the drinks tab and going home with her friend Current Affairs. But anything else and I’m about as useful as a lobotomised Bonobo with a yellow crayon stuffed up its nose, or a member of the shadow cabinet. That day, sitting in front of that screen, with that first question in front of me, I suspected I was about to go full Crayola Bonobo.

Which 1932 novel took its title from the words spoken by Miranda in the last act of ‘The Tempest’?

‘Oh this is embarrassing. I’m pretty certain I’ve read this book. In fact, I’m sure this exact thing is mentioned in the forward. Plus, I was in The Tempest at school. Granted, it was a largely forgettable interpretation, but that’s hardly an excuse. For Heaven’s sake, the girl playing Miranda is my standout memory. Hang on, what was her name? Jess? Are we going with Jess? Well cheers ‘Jess’, maybe if you’d been less visually captivating I’d have paid more attention to what you were saying. I wonder what Jess is doing these days…’

Based on Peter George’s novel ‘Red Alert’, which Stanley Kubrick film of 1963 – starring Peter Sellers and George C. Scott – is subtitled ‘How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’?

‘Dr Strangelove? Why am I reading these questions in Jeremy Paxman’s voice? Jesus, that’s deeply embedded.’

Which great work of art can be seen in the convent of Santa Maria Delle Grazia in Milan?

‘That’s the Last Supper. Twenty-three years of repressive Catholic upbringing finally pays off.’

Which plant, cultivated in many varieties for its large, edible leaves, derives its name from the Latin for milk because of the milky liquid it can exude when cut?

‘I think I can see Paxman’s face in the screen. I can practically feel him sneering at me.’

Latin, Greek, Russian, Papal, Pattee, Celtic and Maltese are all types of what?


What is the name of the valley near Dusseldorf which gave its name to the important anthropological discovery made there in 1856?

‘The answer to that Maltese question was cross, wasn’t it? Bugger. Bugger-bugger-bugger-bugger-bugger!’

The Albert Memorial, St. Pancras Station and the government offices now entirely occupied by the Foreign Office were all the work of which architect?

‘Terrier? TERRIER? Who ever heard of a Pattee-fucking-Terrier? You stupid bast-‘

“Fado, Fatima, Football” is an expression often used to refer to the preoccupations of which European people, in particular during the dictatorship of Antonio Salazar?

‘Wait a minute! I know this! Portugal? Portugal! Haha! Have that you stupid computer! Back in the saddle! Back in the game! How do you like me-‘

The Daffodil and the Jonquil both belong to which genus of plants, named after a Greek youth that rejected the nymph Echo?

‘…now. How do you like me now. Was what I was going to say. Before you ruined it. Goddamn it.’

It went on like this. On and on and on, for two and a half soul-cleaving hours. At least half of the questions seemed to be science or maths based, and awoke in me a severe reaction, whereby my subconscious took hold upon encountering them, and with a brisk ‘nope’, pressed skip. This confined me to the questions I probably knew, and those that my staggeringly protracted and privileged education demanded I fucking ought to know. With every haphazard guess I could hear my old housemaster’s voice, exasperated, repeating the damning verdict (which will haunt me for the rest of my life) ‘Spence, if you’d put but a tenth of the effort into your studies as you do into discussing the football, think what a scholar you could have been!’ I glanced round at the others, hard at work, noses to the keyboards. Fabulous shoes were scant consolation. I was certain that every person in the room was wiping the floor with me. These kids knew the leader of the Bull Moose Party in the 1912 US presidential election. They knew the name of the daughter of Hecuba bestowed with the gift of prophecy by Apollo. I’m damn sure they knew who co-wrote Principia Mathematica with A.N. Whitehead. Who am I trying to kid saying I go home with Current Affairs? These kids drop her and History a text with the promise of a better party before the clock strikes ten, leaving me to try and make awkward conversation with Town Planning. Who the fuck wants to talk to Town Planning? (call me).

The nadir of this sorry exercise came with the question ‘Situated in a natural amphitheatre overlooking the Atlantic, Funchal is the capital of which island, noted for its fortified dessert wine?’ I knew the answer. Absolutely, I knew the bloody answer. I knew it was a Portuguese island. I could picture it in my head. I knew and had (too) frequently consumed the wine in question. It was on the tip of my tongue. But my inner bonobo was insistent. ‘Tenerife!’ it bellowed like a demented troll, beating its chest with the crayons, ‘Teneriiiiiife!’ Well aware that it was not, in fact, Tenerife, but unable to come up with goods, I soon admitted defeat and slunk from the room. No more than a few metres out the door, the ape inside me, suddenly rather unctuous and composed, muttered ‘or, you know, it could be Madeira.’

Later that evening I received an email thanking me for my participation, and inviting me to check back on Monday to review my score. I haven’t bothered. I don’t need that email to tell me I’m thick. Over my time at university, I’ve had plenty of those already.

I do hope Tom made the team, though. Nice guy, Tom.


An error appeared in a previous article by the author a fortnight ago where it was suggested, under duress, that former Guild deputy president James Coe was ‘alive and well.’ It has since come to the Sphinx’s attention that this is incorrect; James is indeed alive, but has not been ‘well’ for some time. We wish to take this opportunity to apologise for the error, and have sent him a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book to guide him through this difficult period.