The blood pressure was up again last night, and no surprises there. Keep it to yourself but some months ago I bet Melvyn Bragg and Joan Bakewell that I could take any dunce they cared to mention and cram them to win Celebrity Mastermind, using, of course, the techniques of didactic gradualism. Now I know what you are saying, and I agree, I agree: betting those two old chisellers is hardly a fitting demonstration of the powers of so monumental a development as didactic gradualism. But let’s just say that there were some old scores to settle, and leave it at that. So hands were spat on and shook, and the bet was made, the next step being for my counter-parties to nominate a suitable subject for the trial. Well they took their pints and withdrew into a corner of the pub for a prolonged and evidently heated discussion, returning some minutes later with crafty looks and the smiles of anticipated victory. I sat stiffly erect and waited for their worst with a look of granite dignity and forbearance; but I must confess that an involuntary wince was the reaction when they announced the name: JP McCoy.Cripes!
I’d known JP since he was a lad mucking out the racers at my stud in County Meath, and even then, when his toughest mental challenge was to figure out how to move horse muck from point a to point b you could virtually hear the mental cogs grinding. How he had gone on to become the greatest jockey of his generation was a triumph of my training over his rudimentary capabilities. Never give up- no case is completely hopeless, I said to myself repeatedly on the gallops as JP jumped the rails instead of the fences, and I said the same thing to myself when Bragg and Bakewell sprang his name upon me. After all, I had overcome bigger challenges- look what I managed with Hawking, after all.
All the same it was fierce work. I had JP flown out to my apartment in Dubai, where the harsh prohibitions on the consumption of alcohol might constrain his tendency for purposeful rambles down Toping Street. I shall never forget the first night in which we thrashed out a list of the ‘specialist subjects’ which JP would have to master if he were to win the coveted ‘Celebrity Mastermind’ bowl, and I my bet. There were four subjects on the list, one for each of the knock-out rounds of the competition, and one for the final:
The techniques and equipment of fly-fishing
Styles of peasant dance
Historical currencies of Spanish origin
I have neither the space nor the inclination to describe here how JP and I spent week after agonising week building his knowledge of these subjects through minute incremental steps. Never had the principles of didactic gradualism a sterner test or a clearer vindication, for JP emerged blinking into the harsh Dubai sunlight on the eighth week almost as knowledgeable as I of our four focussed fields of study. And so to last night…
I clutched the arms of my chair as JP was invited to take the hot seat, peering at the television to see whether his walk across the studio floor betrayed any signs of ‘green room’ indulgences. Nor did my grip loosen by the smallest fraction as the questioning began:
JP: The Itchen back-flip.
Humphries: Correct. Which type of caddis fly larva is mimicked by the lure known as a ghiillie’s eyebrow.
JP: Saluris Madriedae
Humphries: Correct. In the 18th century what was the weight of heaviest recorded salmon to have been caught with a line on the River Tay between Golmoray and the ‘Stirling Bends’.
JP: Sixty four pounds, seven ounces and four drachms.
Myself, leaning forward in chair: Attaboy JP!
Humphries: Correct. What is meant by ‘under champing’?
JP: A largely obsolete practice of casting with a horizontal ruffle that was once popular with the ‘underhand butts’ school.
Humphries, smiling: Correct.
Myself, half standing: Yes!
Humphries: For what purpose might a ‘poplin Mary’ be employed?
JP: To re-inforce a weakened top-knuckle that had caught on an overhanging tree, submerged supermarket trolley, or countless other forms of obstruction that plague the life of the angler.
Myself, punching air with fist: Yeah… textbook!
Humphries: Correct. In which navigable waterway has the practice of double reefing been banned by the British Waterways Board since a fatal accident in1953?
JP: The Firth of Forth.
Humphries: Correct. Which of its members were removed from the Standards Committee of the British Angling Authority after the ‘eased spindles’ scandal in 1904?
JP: Brigadier Sir George Robert Carlisle; the Right Reverend Enoch, Bishop of Ely; Lord and Lady Aberaeron; and the Duke of Argyll.
Humphries: Correct. What is the maximum modulus of elasticity of nylon headers under the Glamorgan convention introduced in 1988 following an accusation of sprocket packing at the West Highland championship?
JP: 4.8 Pascals.
Humphries: Yes I’ll accept that, or Newtons per square metre.
Myself, outraged, flecks of spittle at corner of mouth: Time wasting- get on with it!
Humphries: What notable printing error characterises the rare 2nd edition of Sir Arthur Bower’s classic reference ‘Imitating the Thorax of the Water Nymph with natural Hemp Sutures’?
JP: The reversal of a plate.
Humphries: More specifically…
Myself, shouting hoarsely: Pedant!
JP: The colour plate facing Page 64 in which three faux nymphs are shown with doubled barbs.
Humphries: Correct. Whose 1921 record for catching the most brown trout with slip-faced ticklers was temporarily broken by Alison Broad using synthetic rayon slip-faces in 2003 before the use of rayon was overturned in the ‘Cahill’ judgement.
JP: Father Patrick Sweeney of St Brendan’s Church, Mallow.
Humphries: Correct. What is the conventional penalty for a frayed tie-end in Class 2 international fly judging.
JP: Three points provided the frayed-end is no longer than 2 millimetres, otherwise five points.
Myself, having drained tumbler of premium malt in a single gargantuan swig: Come-on come-on!
Humphries: With what elongated variety of close-chuffed fly is the Welsh opera singer Bryn Terfyl closely associated?
JP: the triple ‘French’.
Humphries: Correct. Since 2006 what has been the maximum number of eyelets permissible on a split cane rod under international competitive salmon fishing rules?
JP: thirteen if the bottom runner is more than 30 centimetres from the butt.
Humphries: Correct. For what non-compliance were all of the lady members of the Canadian team disqualified in the Henessey casting handicap at Stockbridge in 1963?
JP: The use of ovolo barbs with less than the minimum legal radius of curvature.
Humphries: Correct. What is the common term for…I’ve started so I’ll finish… the piece of equipment that consists of a spool, ratchet, centre pawl, eccentric crank, spindle button and clamp and which is used to regulate the distention of the line?
JP, squeezing a perplexed chin: ermmm…
Myself, nodding at television, eyebrows at maximum altitude: ….
Myself, head turned upwards imploringly to the unheeding gods: for *****sake it’s THE REEL MCCOY!
JP: ..the reel?
Myself, dissolving with relief: thank God for that.
Hard as it might be to imagine, the general knowledge round was even more fraught, but JP had done enough and beat Gok by a convincing 3 points, leaving weather-girl Carol and smarmy Fry trailing some way behind. Less than a week now to the second round, and my nerves are still in shreds.