The friendly waitresses at the Manchester Media City Holiday Inn all have tattoos peeking out of their clothes, like they are an undercover roller-derby team. This is strangely comforting to me at breakfast, as I round up two of my team-mates, the third still being en route on a train.
Sun Tzu says that the best battles are won without fighting, I say, so this is how we prepare. The questions in Christmas University Challenge are often seasonal or commemorative. So if Jeremy Paxman shows you a map of Israel and wants you to identify a town on it, it’s probably going to be Bethlehem. If he wants to know something about an odd bird, it’s probably going to be a turkey. Not all the time, but just enough to make a difference if you’re stumped.
As for commemoration, more often than not there are going to be questions about someone who has died this year. We’ve already made tits of ourselves by not knowing anything about Toni Morrison (doubly embarrassing to the vicar, who not only owns her books, but owns copies personally signed to him); let’s not get caught out on Ginger Baker or Chewbacca the Wookiee.
As for our specialties, Henry Gee will handle dinosaurs, sciency things and old people’s music, the Reverend Richard Coles will handle the Bible (we hope) and the Ibiza rave scene (for some reason), and Timothy Allen will handle photography in a cold climate and things to do with a dead yak. And I will absolutely be your go-to guy on Japanese cartoons, which come to think of it, are really unlikely to show up. In fact, if they arise at all, it will be in the form of: “Numerically the worst mass-murder in post-war Japanese history, an arson attack killed 36 workers at which studio this year?”
In commemoration terms, there was an outside chance that Paxman might offer a bonus round on adaptations of works by Kazuo Koike, or possibly: “With a pseudonym combining a common type of simian with a common boxing move, which Japanese comics artist created Lupin III?” But those have to be the only occasions this year when anime and manga news has stood a chance of being an identifiable part of the mainstream. Unless, of course, you count your own correspondent showing up on Christmas University Challenge, representing Leeds, where as an undergraduate he was infamously late for his Japanese language finals because he’d been in a studio playing V-Daan, the most powerful sorcerer on the battleship Uranus.
Leeds has never won University Challenge in any form, so making it through to the final is our chance to redress fifty-six years of hurt. Although we had watched the other semi-final from the green room, and so got to see Wadham College, Oxford, completely demolish Trinity Hall, Cambridge. So it’s us versus Wadham in the Christmas University Challenge final, a final which has never been won by a non-Oxbridge institution. So wish us luck.