In London last week I had dinner with a friend at one of the Victorian-Era gentleman’s clubs (now co-ed). In the drawing room was “the Answer Book”, in which any member could write a question for any other member to answer.
The book went back almost to the war, and the questions were wide-ranging. Someone would ask “Can anyone tell me where this couplet comes from?” and some Professor of Literature would write an answer. Another would ask “There is a story in my hometown of Haltwhistle that Oliver Cromwell briefly lived there – is that true?” and some Professor of History would answer. The most fun questions to read did not fall into any discipline and were red meat for the club’s anoraks, “How much did Lord Alvaney wager on the speed of a raindrop down a window?” and “Is it true that Hilaire Belloc once struck a breakfast companion with a haddock during an argument over politics?”
Paging through year by year, it seemed that most years a question was asked and then ultimately answered by a subsequent reader every month or so. Some years had as many as 20 questions, others as a few as 8. But around 2000, the number dropped sharply, with six month gaps widening into year long gaps. And then, the following exchange between two members:
Question: Why doesn’t anyone write questions in the answer book any more?