In London last week I had dinner with a friend at one of the Victorian-Era gentlemanâ€™s clubs (now co-ed). In the drawing room was â€œthe Answer Bookâ€, 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 â€œCan anyone tell me where this couplet comes from?â€ and some Professor of Literature would write an answer. Another would ask â€œThere is a story in my hometown of Haltwhistle that Oliver Cromwell briefly lived there â€“ is that true?â€ 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 clubâ€™s anoraks, â€œHow much did Lord Alvaney wager on the speed of a raindrop down a window?â€ and â€œIs it true that Hilaire Belloc once struck a breakfast companion with a haddock during an argument over politics?â€
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 doesnâ€™t anyone write questions in the answer book any more?