Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Your starter for ten...

The tabloid columnists have been in their element this week. What has happened to society when an uneducated wretch such as Jade Goody is venerated as a modern-day saint, while the brainy Gail Trimble – star of the Corpus Christi team on University Challenge – is ridiculed and derided?

Let me put my cards on the table. I’m not sure I could comfortably spend more than five or ten minutes with either Jade or Gail. I do, however, understand why the reality TV star evokes more interest and sympathy from the public than the scarily clever Oxford student.

The great British public likes an underdog. The Bermondsey girl came from nothing and needed her TV exposure to make something of her life, while Ms Trimble went to a private school in south-west London, pursued her intellectual interests at university and would no doubt build some kind of highly successful career regardless of her brush with Jeremy Paxman.

There is, of course, another rather obvious difference between the two young women. One is confronting terminal cancer, while the other’s biggest challenge appears to be a decision about whether to accept the offer of a photoshoot with Nuts.

Supporters of Gail point to a load of sexist drivel that’s been written about her in the blogosphere. I’m sure there are indeed a number of men who just can’t cope with the idea of a very clever woman and they need to go away and get a life. That said, we can’t pretend that Gail is just your typical, run-of-the-mill brainy person. She answered more questions correctly on University Challenge than all her Oxbridge team mates combined. She also appears to come from that frightening social milieu that used to dominate the TV show Ask the Family back in the 1970s. Hearing her speak, one imagines that an evening’s entertainment in the Trimble household would be a challenge to see who could best set the Periodic Table to music during piano practice.

Although I was fortunate enough to go to a university that was ranked in the world’s Top 20 a few years ago, I would be hard-pressed to answer more than about a dozen questions on a typical University Challenge show. It is not a programme for averagely bright people or for people whose knowledge is ‘general’ in any meaningful sense of the word. To participate, you need to be as comfortable with Greek mythology and English literature as you are with organic chemistry. You need to know about the Beatles, Beethoven and probably Little Boots as well. I’m afraid we Brits will never, ever grow to like people whose knowledge is so encyclopaedic. It seems abnormal and we find it oppressive. Although we laugh and groan at the girl who thought ‘East Angular’ was a foreign country, we empathise more with her. And I’m not sure this is quite the indictment of our culture that it’s made out to be in the media.

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