In praise of Gail Trimble -- classicist
I don't have much experience of University Challenge. When I was at school, I vividly remember a successful team from St Hilda's Oxford (then happily all-female). More than 40 years on I could still tell you some of their names: they were a role model for thousands of clever little girls.
When I was a student myself, I was too snooty to be bothered with it. We hadn't come to University to be general knowledge quiz contestants; we were enjoying the life of the mind at a far higher level. (You may suspect that this was a convenient alibi -- covering up youthful fears that exposure to the buzzer would reveal some worrying lacunae in the knowledge base).
I now watch it just occasionally. And last year I was question-mistress at a Cambridge rag version. reading the questions out, with appropriate rhythm and tempo, is -- I can assure you -- harder than you would think. I came away with my respect for Paxman heightened.
And then last week I caught a glimpse of the Corpus Christi team in action, with the splendid Gail Trimble scoring more points on her own than most ordinary teams do combined.
Just how impressive was it?
Well, I still have some of my undergraduate doubts about the whole enterprise. As I am sure Trimble herself would agree, being good on quiz shows isn't necessarily the best test of genius (nor is scoring 15 A levels at grade A for that matter). All the same, you couldn't help but admire her.
What was really surprising was the press and blogging reaction to the performance. On the one hand were the over-impressed. Is it really that amazing to know that Hilaire Belloc's Matilda and Dickens's Miss Havisham both died in a fire? (Perhaps it was amazing to recall it as quickly as she did . . .).
On the other were the frankly nasty -- all those guys accusing her of being 'smug' and 'cocky' and 'superior'. As Patience Wheatcroft pointed out on the radio this morning, what they really meant that she was clever and that she was doing very well indeed (and, unsurprisingly, she knew it). Would they have said that is she had been a man? Of course not.
My final reactions ran on predictable lines. I found myself feeling very pleased that she was a Classicist. For her day job she is writing a doctorate on Latin poetry. She spoke at our graduate interdisciplinary seminar in Cambridge a few weeks ago, and a few weeks before that she was lecturing at Cornell on Catullus 64. Last June, she was performing at a conference in Lille.
It seems to me that she's a great advert for the subject -- and its brilliant combination of the hard detailed grind and the wide-ranging intellectual culture (the Mozart as well as the Maths, you might say). She herself gives a good promo for the subject on the Oxford Classics website (I liked the bit about "verse composition over a gin and tonic"... but take that line about Oxford being simply "the best place in the country to do Classics" with a pinch of Cambridge salt!)
So I wish her every success. I hope she get just as much publicity as she wants out of University Challenge (and may be make a bit of money out of it too). And when that's all over I hope she settles down and finishes her thesis (not too much foreign travel Miss Trimble!) -- and then goes on to get whatever kind of job she wants. For me, she's a great advert for the subject (and its female practitioners).