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Monday, February 19, 2007

University Challenge:

Finally got around to writing up an account of our appearance in the show. It's way late but at least that means I kept it fairly short!



Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A Grand Day Out.

Several months ago, I received a rather suave invitation to an Open University graduation ceremony at the Barbican in London. The reason for the invitation was that Jeremy Paxman was to be awarded an honorary doctorate by the University.

For those who don't know, Jeremy Paxman presents news and current affairs programmes and interviews grills people in the public eye. He is noted for his refusal to be fobbed off by trite answers from smug politicians. 8-)

He is also the question master in the B.B.C. television quiz programme University Challenge . Yours truly was a member of the Open University team which won the 1998/9 series, hence the invitation to the members of the winning team. And so, at stupid o'clock last Friday morning, Rod and I fetched up at Grimsby Town railway station for the trek south.

Now, I'm all in favour of public transport. I was born in 'Railway City' (York) and my paternal grandfather worked on the railways, so it's kind of in my blood - without being too anoraky about it. I prefer travelling by train to driving; you can read a book, watch the scenery, get up and stretch your legs on the way to the buffet car, or just snooze. Beats long periods of concentration, avoiding idiot drivers, or being stuck in ten mile tailbacks.

The big problem is the cost. £92 each for a 'cheap' day return - full price is around £140 I think. When we arrived at King's Cross, we then found that the cheapest single underground fare is £3.00! For two stops! Come on, guys, if you want people to take the more ecologically friendly route, you have to make it reasonably competitive! Including car parking at the station and petrol costs to get to the station, the trip cost us two hundred quid. For a day out...

A friend who has relatives in Italy once told me that the railways there are heavily subsidized, and we worked out that, at their tariffs, we could travel down to London for around a tenner each. That would get a lot of people out of their cars.

The journey was otherwise pleasant, the weather was good and we arrived in good time. Another plus was, that on the first leg of our journey on the trans-Pennine train to Doncaster, the promised new rolling stock was in service - stylish and clean

At the Barbican, we were directed up to the Garden Room on the third floor where lunch was to be served. It was worth the visit just for this. Off the Garden Room is a huge - well, garden, I suppose. It is huge and strongly reminiscent of the Palm House at Kew Gardens, being packed with date palms, bamboo, enormous tropical plants, and plenty of smaller plants with exotic flowers, all in large raised beds with block paved walkways winding between them.

There was a large aviary with a variety of small birds like zebra finches and several water features well stocked with varied large koi which were at least a foot long. A small Japanese-style bridge crossed the water at one point and there was a stairway with a couple of landings which led to the top of the garden for an aerial view.

We met David (Good) on our wanderings. He now has a goatee beard and moustache and looks very distinguished. The lovely Shirley, his wife, was unable to be there as someone had to stay home for the children.

After reminiscing for a while, we made our way back to the open area at the entrance to the garden where 'champagne' was now being handed out. It was actually sparkling Australian wine made by the 'méthode champagnoise' but it was very pleasant, apparently unlimited in supply, and nobody was complaining.

We met Sheila, one of the administrators who was sharing our table for lunch, and who claimed to be much in awe of us. I pointed out that winning the competition was as much down to luck as anything. The most well-informed person has only small islands of knowledge in a vast ocean of ignorance and it's just good luck if the questions hit one of the islands rather than plunging into the briny. She seemed a little relieved. 8-)

John (Burke, our brilliant captain) showed up, on his own like David. He has not changed... ;-) There were more reminiscences and much laughter. (Remember the 'champagne'?) We also learned that Lance (Haward) had 'phoned to say that he would be unable to attend, which was a shame as it would have been nice to have the whole team present.

On the other hand, it enabled Jeremy to say what he thought about Lance with particular reference to Lance's announcement in an interview that he had taken an Open University course for the sole purpose of getting on University Challenge. For the record, the rest of us took a dim view of that too.

If Lance ever reads this, I'm sure he will be delighted. His avowed aim, expressed the first time the whole team met up on the day before our first match, was "to get up Jeremy Paxman's nose." He seems to have succeeded spectacularly well!

The graduation ceremony began with the V.I.P.s "processing" into the auditorium. That included the team. (I've never been a vip before.) We were on the second row on the stage behind the dignitaries and honorary doctors, there to be stared at for the next hour or so.

The first event was the conferment of an honorary doctorate on Jeremy Paxman by the Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Professor David Vincent. He gave an amusing introductory speech in which it was said that Jeremy had added a new word to the English language, the verb, 'to Paxman.' He then went on to relate the highlights of his career.

Dr. Paxman then gave a speech of thanks which was very entertaining, and modest too. At the risk of ruining the good doctor's reputation, I have to say that when not interrogating politicians, he is a perfectly affable gentleman with no side to him at all.

There followed the presentation of graduates in a seemingly endless procession of all colours, shapes and sizes, including a couple of guys in kilts. It was very sore on the hands as, being prominently displayed on stage, it didn't seem right to have a rest now and again.

Afterwards came tea in the Garden Room, and then a dash back to King's Cross to catch the 6p.m. train home. There we experienced another reason why public transport is less popular than it might be.

Walkmans - walkmen? - with their annoying audible tinny rattle of 'te-te-tsss-te-te-tsss-te-te-tsss-te-te-tsss' may have faded from popular culture, but now we have mp3 players and i-pods, so we were still bombarded by that annoying audible tinny rattle of 'te-te-tsss-te-te-tsss-te-te-tsss-te-te-tsss.'

We changed trains at Doncaster again, back on to the sparkly new rolling stock. But some things never change. A young woman and her bonny little daughter, aged about three, embarked at the same time. I think the mother was in training for the next series of Big Brother - or an A.S.B.O. Boy, was she loud! We really didn't want to know that the little girl had had two Big Macs that day. She said it like it was something to be proud of, too. Jamie Oliver, England needs you!

We hoped they'd get off at Scunthorpe; they didn't. So we upped sticks and moved into another carriage which was mercifully an irritant-free zone. All in all, it was a grand day out, and great to meet the team again. 8-)