Maddening, Fiendish, Formidable
Ian Patterson · Nemo’s Almanac
Nemo’s Almanac is a long-running literary quiz, which may sound like a pointless thing to write about but it’s – almost – an important cultural phenomenon. It’s also at a critical moment in its history, representing as it does a radically different pace, mode and rationale of intellectual inquiry from the instant gratification of curiosity that the internet has made possible. It consists of 72 quotations, plus one more on the cover, arranged according to monthly themes (this year’s include Hats, Coal, Novelty, Foxgloves, Silence and Socialism). It was started by a governess called Mrs Larden (first name unknown) in 1892 as an almanac and quiz for her charges. The fourth editor, Katherine Watson, who ran a bookshop in Burford, turned it over to John Fuller in 1970. The editorship subsequently passed to Alan Hollinghurst, who in turn passed it on to the late Gerard Benson, who was followed by Nigel Forde; and now I am Nemo and the Almanac has become my responsibility.
I’ve been looking through the Nemo archive – a document wallet containing a miscellaneous collection of financial records, press cuttings and correspondence dating back forty years or so, as well as a complete run of the quiz – to try to piece together something of its history. In its heyday, under Hollinghurst, sales of the Almanac reached 2000, and the list of subscribers included both fanciful pseudonyms (‘The Mollpolls’, ‘Merrytwang’) and such well-known names as Francis Wyndham and Helen Gardner (who apparently talked about nothing else at dinner parties and high table, and made her research students look for answers, but to her great chagrin never achieved full marks). Many of the competitors over the years have been remarkably persevering, like Miss Overton, who competed for 54 years despite never winning a prize – an example to us all.
Adjectives regularly used in the cuttings to describe the quiz are ‘maddening’, ‘fiendish’, ‘formidable’, ‘elusive’ and ‘addictive’, to which these days we must add ‘self-disciplined’, since recourse to the internet is forbidden. You could probably finish practically the whole quiz in a few hours using the vast array of databases now available – but that would be to deny the point of the exercise. Finding quotations without electronic assistance means reading or rereading novels, anthologies, volumes of poetry and prose from the last five centuries, day after day, month after month, for the best part of a year, looking for some half-remembered turn of phrase or description or snatch of dialogue, all for the unparalleled pleasure of the moment of discovery. Like slow food, or walking, it might seem a luxury or a waste of time, but like them it can be curiously beneficial and restorative.
Anyway, you might like it. And it makes a good Christmas present as it can be treated as sociably or secretively as you wish. Copies are available from Ian Patterson at Queens’ College, Cambridge CB3 9ET, at £3 per copy, or 4 for £10. Cheques should be made out to Nemo's Almanac, and a stamped, self-addressed C5 envelope would be welcome.