At 19, heavy drinking was the only one way I could prepare for University Challenge

Our opponents were already in the studio looking brainy and sober

As a teenager, I was so shy that I used to hide in the host’s garden shed at parties until it was time to go home. I once walked home five miles and hid in our own garden shed. Then one day, I discovered the emboldening force of ‘fruit cup’ when, thirsty from tennis and not knowing it was alcoholic, I downed a pint at a summer party for the Jackson girl twins. It gave me, from nowhere, the power of speech. By the end of the evening I had exchanged words with both twins and at least one other girl.

At university, I couldn’t face formal hall sober. I couldn’t face anything much until I discovered home brewing. If you doubled the amount of sugar recommended on the side of the Boots pack, you could produce a beer so powerful that it blew the tap out of the keg. Minor adjustments led to the production of what we called student gin: drunk for five pence, dead drunk for ten.

When my room mate Ian and I were asked to be on the University Challenge team in the autumn term of our second year, the Granada TV producer advised us to have a nerve-settler before going on. This seemed an excellent plan. We drove to Manchester in a Japanese car belonging to one of our team, John, who was a postgraduate and could somehow afford it. His speciality was the ancient world; Ian was politics and history; a boy called Laurie was the scientist. And I… ‘What’s your speciality, Seb?’  ‘Drink? Films? I don’t know. I’ve played golf a couple of times for the college.’ The car grew glum.

Well, there was no way of transporting the keg of homebrew to Manchester, so before the filming we had to go to a pub. None of the others was as terrified as I was, but they came for a half. As a part-time barman in the college bar, I had established that the biggest bang for your student buck came from a drink called barley wine. It was sold in small bottles and was drunk mostly by tramps in the market square.

The good thing about it was that it gave you the effect of a wine glass full of whisky, the bad thing was that it tasted of Marmite and old teabags. I managed to hold one down, though, with the help of a few Number 6 cigarettes. Then another. And then, if memory serves, another. Oh that blessed high of nicotine and alcohol, long since proscribed: not a sum, but a square (at least) of their respective effects.

There was still 20 minutes before we were due back in the studio. The other three were nursing their second halves in a responsible fashion, but I was beginning to feel confident. Partly to take away the taste of the barley wine, I ordered a cleansing pint of real ale — Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, I rather think. Right. I smacked the empty glass down on the bar. Let’s go.

Our opponents were already in the studio looking brainy and sober. They were from Glasgow University. Perhaps they had got wind of the fact that three quarters of Bamber Gascoigne’s questions would relate to the geography of the Western Isles. I didn’t care. I was powered up; I was a Ferrari on the grid, roaring with ethanol-powered confidence. I was set to answer questions on anything. Art, astronomy, quantum mechanics, Shostakovich… Bring it on, Bamber.

The signature tune bong-boomed out noisily and my feet were tapping. I felt majestic, I felt omniscient. I felt good. We were only 19.

‘Your starter for ten. What was the military rank of the gentleman who gave his name to the standard score in golf before the arrival of the dreaded par?’

Golf! Ian looked at me. John looked at me. Laurie looked at me. I jabbed. ‘Emmanuel, Faulks.’

‘Colonel.’

‘Correct.’

I have seldom been sober since.

Sebastian Faulks’s most recent novel, Where My Heart Used to Beat, comes out in paperback on 30 June.


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