General knowledge

A light-hearted look at the issue of how much general knowledge is acceptable in cryptic crosswords 

Back in 2004, an elite team of crossword compilers appeared on University Challenge – The Professionals, a version of the popular quiz in which the teams comprised four people who shared the same career or profession. The compilers lost to a team from the British Library in the first round. At the time I was setting puzzles for an agency – my FT and Independent days were yet to come – and people took great delight in reminding me of the compilers’ defeat.

“Did you see the compilers’ team on University Challenge? Didn’t do too well, did they, nudge nudge?”

No, they didn’t do too well. They didn’t disgrace themselves either, but expectations would have been high for a team of people who set crossword clues incomprehensible to a large swathe of the population. Had a team of nightclub bouncers appeared on the programme, their performance would have been considered decent if they’d managed to answer two questions and not beaten anyone up.

I get this quite a lot. When I tell people that I set crosswords, the response is often, “Wow, you must be really clever!” – which always makes me feel like a fraud. In any case, there is no reason why the ability to play with words should go hand in hand with a wide general knowledge.

I’m rubbish at quizzes. It’s not that I can’t answer any questions – in fact I can often answer those that nobody else knows. The problem is that I can never answer the questions that everybody else knows.

Back in the 90s, I was watching a couple of guys play a pub quiz machine while I waited for my mate to turn up. Their performance was awesome. They answered question after question about sport (mainly football) with supreme confidence, racking up an eye-watering amount of prize money. You may remember that in order to keep pay-outs to a minimum, the designers of these machines gave them the ability to suss out which subjects you avoided and, once you started doing quite well, these would be the subjects offered as a choice of categories.

So it was that after correctly identifying the player who scored Accrington Stanley’s last goal of the season in 1972, along with a thousand other questions of a similar nature, our two heroes were brought up short by this:

Mozart’s Symphony no. 41 is named after which planet?

A. Mars
B. Jupiter
C. Saturn

There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth – or, more accurately, swearing. I told them that the answer was B, Jupiter.

“You sure, mate?” said one of the players, in a tone that suggested I’d be sucking liquid food through a straw for a long time if I was wrong. They were the archetypal British Pub Bloke – jolly nice chaps as long as you didn’t do anything to offend them, like spill their pint or look at them funny.

When my answer turned out to be correct, they showered me with astonished praise. “Effing hell, mate, you effing know everything. Are you some sort of effing genius?” In vain did I point out that I’d only answered one question, while they’d answered loads about which I wouldn’t have had a clue.

Some time later I was reluctantly co-opted onto the pub quiz team. Every week I’d turn up and sit there in silence for 98% of the time, occasionally naming an opera by Harrison Birtwistle or translating a word into Russian. Each time I made one of my rare contributions, the others would nod approvingly and tell me how pleased they were to have me on the team. And I don’t think they were being sarcastic.

This may all look like humblebragging (what a marvellous word!) but that’s not my intention at all. As it happens I don’t think that my general knowledge is any better or worse than most people’s, but many quizzes are skewed towards sport, pop music and TV, about which I know next to nothing. I could answer quite knowledgeably about cricket, Pink Floyd and Prisoner: Cell Block H, but questions about such matters tend not to come up very often.

Unhelpful and unexciting words will always be unhelpful and unexciting, and as the man said, you can’t polish a turd. 

No two people will ever agree on what general knowledge actually includes. And some people get quite nasty about it. Returning to University Challenge – the student version this time – and in 2009 a presentable and intelligent young woman named Gail Trimble almost single-handedly steered her team, Corpus Christi, to an easy victory in the final. You’d think that people would be full of admiration for such a performance, but no. The Sun presented her with a series of questions about trivia, and when she couldn’t answer them there was much rejoicing among the Sun’s readership that Miss Trimble wasn’t quite as clever as she thought. Which, of course, is proof that Sun readers aren’t clever at all. It should be obvious that someone whose knowledge extends from Shakespeare to mathematics via botany, linguistics and obstetrics is unlikely to know – or care – who Chelsea’s football manager is or who won Celebrity Big Brother.

And so we come to crosswords. Of all the posts which annoy me on crossword blogs, the one that irks me the second most is “Didn’t like this puzzle, too much general knowledge required.”  

(The posts that annoy me the most are of the type “Yes, I know that both OED and Chambers give those two words as synonyms, but it’s still wrong.”)

Those who complain about too much general knowledge – often abbreviated to GK – don’t realise how silly they look. General knowledge, when defined literally, is what any ordinary person can be expected to know – major capital cities, titles by Shakespeare and Dickens, basic science, important American presidents, the lead actors in classic films, and so on. From a musical point of view, general knowledge involves knowing the names of major works by Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner and Verdi, but not the works (or even names) of composers like Suk, Martinů, Poulenc or Villa-Lobos. So when people complain about “too much GK” what they appear to be saying is “Why should I be expected to know stuff that any reasonably educated person should be familiar with?” And that, I hope you’ll agree, isn’t much less ignorant than the Sun’s treatment of Gail Trimble.

Except that’s not what they usually mean at all. What they really mean is that there was too much obscure knowledge in the puzzle – and that opens up a new can of worms. What is obscure toone person is obvious to another, such as the Mozart symphony question on that pub quiz machine. Any crossword setter who deviates from simple word substitution and includes references to art, literature, music, history or even geography runs the risk of being accused of “too much GK” – i.e. too much obscure knowledge. But what exactly is obscure knowledge?

An Independent puzzle in 2012 contained the names of three football referees as answers. To me, that’s about as obscure it gets, and several comments on the Fifteen Squared blog expressed the same view. One poster, however, wrote this:

Interesting that clues needing knowledge of present day football is seen as somehow unfair by some but needing to know about music from 300 years ago isn’t. 

To which another replied:

At least you can argue music from 300 years ago has stood the test of time. 

Both have a valid point. It would be egregious to state that “what I know is more important than what you know” – but at the same time it’s not unreasonable to expect a person to have assimilated at least some knowledge of music that’s been around for more than a century, while the minutiae of a game only its aficionados will be familiar with are arguably more arcane. I have my own personal leanings, of course. If you asked me who won the FA Cup last year, I couldn’t tell you. That’s not just me doing a modern-day version of the mythical judge who claimed not to have heard of the Beatles; I really don’t know. On the other hand, there’s at least a 90% chance that I’ll be able to name the composer of any work written between 1700 and 1980. That’s because it’s where my interests lie; my knowledge of music is no more important than your knowledge of football to anybody except me. And if I’m honest, I’m sure that more people would be able to name a football referee than identify who wrote many of the operas I listen to!

In a sense, “that’s obscure” is synonymous with “I don’t know that” – although obviously there are things we can all agree lie outside the area of general knowledge, such as the actor who played “Extra in Wedding Scene” in The Godfather or the original name of Intercourse, USA (yes, there really is one), although I’m sure there are people who do know such things. But it is churlish – and selfish – to dismiss as obscure anything that falls outside one’s own range of interest.

One of the quirks of British culture, something I’ve never come across in the Czech Republic since I moved here in 2010, is the belief that some areas of knowledge belong only with the privileged classes and are therefore to be scorned. That was the cause of the Sun’s bone-headed attitude towards an uncommonly intelligent young woman, and since we’re back to University Challenge again, I’ll mention something that started to irritate me about it around the early 2000s. It seemed to have become obligatory for almost every contestant to preface his or her answer with “Is it…?” That’s fine when the answer is obviously a guess, but when someone buzzes in with “Is it 2,4-dinitro-5-fluoroaniline?” you get the impression that person’s trying a bit too hard not to look like a smart-arse for fear of losing street cred. (Miss Trimble didn’t do this, to her credit.) I can’t help wondering if some of the commenters on crossword blogs who complain about references to Shakespeare, Greek mythology or, of course, classical music are doing the same thing in a way.

Perhaps I’m being unfair, but the point is that if crossword puzzles abandoned anything that could be criticised as “too much GK” they’d become as samey and repetitive as Sudoku. The great, late Araucaria recognised this and often included themes based on poetry, history, literature and music in his puzzles. As a result he introduced his solvers to cultural treasures which might otherwise have gone undiscovered. Araucaria’s deserved high standing meant he could get away withan the rest of us can, but I believe that crosswords should be educational as well as fun. There is nothing wrong with including answers which involve general knowledge of any sort, so long as the setter makes sure that the wordplay is clear, unambiguous and not too difficult.

I take the view that if I don’t know something that’s my fault, not the setter’s. Yes, I’ll groan when a puzzle contains a lot of pop or football references, but I’ll put up with them if I can have my opera from time to time. And at least I’ll have learned something – so next time anyone is misguided enough to include me in a quiz team, I might be even able to answer some of the questions.