The Big Read: Charge of the erudite brigade
When we walked through the swinging doors of the saloon the locals looked up and narrowed their eyes, and their hands twitched over their quiz pencils.
You could see what they were thinking: who are these dangerous, loose-limbed strangers with their low-slung notepads and general air of scholarly retention?
Actually, they weren't. This is London, where locals don't take much notice of strangers, no matter how pretty their posse, not even if they're there to rob the stagecoach from under their very noses.
We were in a pub called The Grafton, and you'll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy, filled with toughs and bruisers and bug-eyed space-aliens with bad attitudes, but the word on the street was they run a tight quiz, so I'd assembled an elite band of itinerant quizzers, South Africans in the big city, a ragtag band of mercenaries and vagabond brains-for-hire. We were called The Hasselhoffs, which has been the name of my quiz team ever since the night it was formed, at the turn of the millennium, on an occasion when I was experiencing an especially bouffant bad hair day.
The Hoffs have dominated the local scene for many a moon now, but it's one thing to beat that shower of twisters down at the Alexander Bar, quite another to go on the road to the Big Smoke, London, the birthplace of the pub quiz. Many a bright-eyed youngster with a dream in their heart and a list of the capitals of the world on their lips have come to the City to seek their fortune and been sent back to the provinces, chastened and wiser about their ignorance. This was my chance to take a run at the great British pub quiz, but when the moment came, would I be up to it? Would I have the bottle? Who ever knows until the first shots are fired?
I'm currently in London courtesy of the good people at British Airways, and that afternoon I'd visited the Imperial War Museum, which was like walking through the pages of one of those combat-themed annuals I received for Christmas when I was a kid, filled with Bren guns and sten guns and VCs and entrenching tools. There are terrific exhibits - a bullet-holed Japanese Zero retrieved from the Pacific jungles; the jar of sand that Montgomery brought back from El Alamein as a keepsake; a Lancaster bomber that flew 49 missions, its fuselage thin and tinny and fragile as an ego. You rap it with your knuckles and see it quaver and ring; it feels like it could be brought down by a small girl with a catapult or a strongly worded piece of satire. You tremble to imagine the courage of the boys sitting shivering inside in altitude and darkness.
Obviously all those brave young boys were flying off to drop explosives and incendiary devices on civilians and other brave young boys, to blow them up or burn them alive, so only a madman wanders through such a place thinking glorious things about war, but courage is courage, and war stories are stirring and moving, despite themselves. Humans do as many beautiful things as terrible things - acts of kindness and of hate, acts of faith as well as betrayal - and war is a kind of terrible cruel theatre that magnifies both sides.
I was inspired by the museum, but maybe not helpfully so. I turned to my team as we took our table among the trenches of the enemy. "Be quiet and calm, my countrymen," I murmured, "for what is taking place now is exactly what you came to do."
"Yes, I know," said Henrietta, giving me a funny look.
"We are the sons of Africa," I informed them.
"Well, I'm more like a daughter," said Henrietta.
"Stop interrupting me when I'm trying to motivate you!" I snapped.
"Isn't that the speech from the sinking of the Mendi?" asked Jo.
"Some of it," I confessed.
"Why are you trying to motivate us with stories of people who died bravely?"
"Because it's beautiful and heartbreaking, that's why."
"Wouldn't it be better to be inspired by some glorious victory?"
"There are no victories in war," I replied. "There are only degrees of losing."
My teammates looked at each other. I sensed mutiny brewing.
"Yours not to make reply!" I bellowed. "Yours not to reason why! Yours but to do and..."
"That's The Charge of the Light Brigade. They all die as well."
I was about to make reply but the first shots were fired. As the bullets whistled over our heads - an opening fusillade of British football and obscure local politics - I felt the grim call to destiny of a grizzled old squaddie leading his doomed soldiers toward a poignant and calamitous defeat.