All Your Questions Answered

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?

Answer: Wikipedia.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

7 thoughts on “All Your Questions Answered”

  1. Is it true that Hilaire Belloc once struck a breakfast companion with a haddock during an argument over politics?

    Posting this question without an answer is cruel. Wikipedia is silent on this pressing issue.

  2. The story of Mr. Belloc and the fish (later to become the children's short story, "Hilaire and the Haddock") was very well known at the time but less so nowadays. It is unclear the exact nature of the incident as it was early in the morning and there were few other witnesses in the breakfast room. Apparently, Hilaire Belloc became increasingly enraged about the topic of evolution, initially throwing a partially eaten crumpet at his breakfast partner, but missing the target. His tea cup was said to have come down hard on his saucer, which echoed loudly in the breakfast room. An "awkward silence" was said to have ensued. Hilaire's frustration led to immediate retrieval of a medium-sized chunk of smoked haddock which had been partially obscured by a slice of buttered toast. Subsequently, to his opponent's great surprise, a substantial portion of the now airborne fish suddenly struck him on his collar bone, wounding him severely, the remainder landing in Lord Montague's ear who was sitting two tables away, who was said to have not even noticed. His opponent's head fell back and to the right, with his upper torso subsequently slumping forward. He then slid slowly from his chair pulling the table cloth and all table contents with him as he fell. Mr. Belloc was never reprimanded for his behavior nor prosecuted. However, conspiracy theories were quickly generated at the club including the possibility of a "second haddock thrower", possibly hiding behind the curtains in the adjacent library.

  3. Having served on Her Majesty's Commission of Inquiry, Professor Kelly is well-qualified to give the above authoritative account and I thank him for doing so. Even the commission's fine work leaves some questions unanswered, as the haddock himself never talked, despite being grilled for hours by police interrogators and then served with a light butter sauce and a side of braised mushrooms.

  4. And to complete the circle, where does The Google direct you when you use the following search string? "Is it true that Hilaire Belloc once struck a breakfast companion with a haddock during an argument over politics?"

    All questions asked and answered on the intertoobz! Almost like the Library of Alexandria, ain't it?

  5. haddock himself never talked, despite being grilled for hours by police interrogators and then served with a light butter sauce and a side of braised mushrooms.

    Poor investigative technique, I'd say. The haddock was known to be smoked, so it would surely be unresponsive to being grilled.

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