Sex and table quizzes: Frank McNally on why being an anorak is cool again

Courtney Love, risqué art, and the Charge of the Light Brigade

Those of us who worry that we’ve wasted too many nights of our lives doing table quizzes – or worse, reading quiz books in preparation – may take comfort from the knowledge that singer and actress Courtney Love is now one of us.

In an interview with the Financial Times lifestyle supplement, the “grunge goddess” reveals she has forsaken drink and drugs. And when asked her favourite place, she nominates the London library and bookshop Reference Point, because: “It’s where I found my new hobby – pub quizzes.”

Embellishing the theme, she adds: “F**k an academy award, I’ve never been as ecstatic as when my team won two pub quizzes.”

Elsewhere in the interview, discussing clothes, Love declares herself “done with shopping” and says she doesn’t buy things any more because she has enough already.


This reminded me of an interview I did once where the subject of quizzes came up and I revealed, with a mixture of pride and embarrassment, that three items of my apparel were quiz prizes: a GAA anorak (aptly), a pair of Dubarry deck shoes and a golf umbrella.

Alas, that was back in my quiz prime; I have to buy my own clothes again now, mostly. Still, thanks to Love, being (or even wearing) a quiz anorak is threatening to become cool, at last.

Especially validating is the implication that she too bones up for quizzes, although as I’m sure she knows by now, trying to learn all the general knowledge in the world is futile. Rock stars used to joke that if you could remember the 1960s, you weren’t there. Quiz buffs reflect ruefully that if you can remember the 1960s, they probably won’t come up.

Speaking of love (and its related complications), the National Gallery of Ireland (NGI) must have been pleased – but also puzzled – this week to see one of its most popular paintings used to illustrate the Guardian’s agony aunt column.

The picture was Frederick Burton’s Meeting on the Turret Stairs, which in a public vote some years ago was named Ireland’s favourite artwork. It depicts a medieval knight stealing a chaste kiss (of a forearm, through a sleeve) from a passing maid, who looks the other way demurely.

But in the Guardian, the accompanying letter was from a man who had hired the services of a “girlfriend experience” provider. The headline read: “I may have fallen in love with a sex worker I am paying. Could it be real?” Luckily, Burton’s knight and maid are from the Middle Ages, or they might sue.

As chance would have it, the NGI’s current exhibition on Lavinia Fontana includes a picture arguably much more suitable to the task of illustrating sex problems. Venus and Mars (c 1595) is a lot less chaste, at least, depicting both characters naked, or nearly, in what may be a post-coital scene (although Mars is still wearing his helmet).

Whereas Burton’s knight kisses a clothed forearm, the brazen Mars fondles a naked buttock – and not one of his own.

It looks like a MeToo moment, but probably isn’t. An art lover with a keener eye than mine pointed out that, while gazing calmly at the viewer, Venus is holding up a small flower. The implication is that if anyone has done the plucking here, it wasn’t Mars.

Among those arraigned in the latest instalment of Private Eye magazine’s Pseuds Corner is Observer columnist William Keegan, for opening a recent column about his car as follows: “‘Half a league, half a league,/Half a league onward./All in the valley of Death,/Rode the six hundred.’ Why does Tennyson’s great poem come to mind as the local garage waits for a spare part to be delivered from Turin to fix a problem with my Fiat?”

At first glance, it might indeed seem pretentious to drag The Charge of the Light Brigade into a scene involving garage mechanics. But context is everything. And on reading the original, I find that Keegan was using his Fiat frustration as an example of the “supply-chain chaos” caused by Brexit.

The British prime minister was affecting to believe in Brexit, Keegan continued, hence his Tennyson-in-a-garage analogy: “So why did a famous verse I learned at school come to mind? […] because the worst government of most people’s lives is ploughing on, pretending that it can make a success of a manifest disaster.”

It would have been better for his Light Brigade metaphor, admittedly, if his Fiat was a 600 too. But those are rare now and, if Keegan owned one, he would probably have said.

As for me, I mention the story only because Tennyson’s poem is a rare example of understatement in disaster literature. It was more like 700 men – 670 to be exact – who took part in the infamous charge. For the sake of meter, he rounded it down. I’m hoping this will come up in a quiz sometime.