So you think you know your stuff about good old Blighty? Well, perhaps it’s time to think again. Let John Mitchinson, the man behind popular TV quiz Qi, put you to the test…
Q. Who introduced tobacco to England?
A: Not Sir Walter Raleigh!
The poet, courtier, explorer and Renaissance man is a perfect example of how popular myths attach themselves to attractive characters. His fame rests almost entirely on things he didn’t do.
The first report of a smoking Englishman is of a sailor in Bristol, seen ‘emitting smoke from his nostrils’. This was in 1556, four years before Raleigh was born. It was a Frenchman named Jean Nicot, from whose name the word ‘nicotine’ is derived, who introduced tobacco to France in 1560, and from there it reached England.
Q: Where did the dish chicken tikka masala originate?
Britain now actually exports chicken tikka masala to India! Chicken tikka is a traditional Bangladeshi dish in which marinated chicken is cooked in a clay oven called a tandoor. The first chicken tandoori on a British Indian restaurant menu was at the Gaylord in Mortimer Street in 1966. The recipe reached Glasgow shortly afterwards and when, so the legend goes, a customer asked for gravy, the chef improvised with tomato soup and cream – and chicken tikka masala was born.
Q. Where were the first modern Olympics held?
A: Much Wenlock, Shropshire, in 1850
A Dr W.P. Brookes believed a rigorous programme of physical training would help to make people better Christians by keeping them out of the pubs and so organised the first annual Brookes’ ‘Olympian Games’ in Much Wenlock in 1850. In 1890, Baron Coubertin came to see the Games for himself, returned home determined to re-establish the ancient games, founding the International Olympic Committee in 1894 and organised the Athens Olympiad of 1896.
Q: What colour tights did Robin Hood wear?
The earliest Robin Hood stories were ballads dating from the 15th century. In the longest of these, A Gest of Robyn Hode, Robin and his ‘mery men’ wear ‘a good mantell of scarlet and raye’, a kind of striped bright red wrap. In others, Robin wears red while his men wear green. This reflects his status as leader – ‘scarlet’ was the most expensive cloth in Medieval England, and also explains the name Robin – from the Latin robus, ‘red’.
Q. What kind of animal did Beatrix Potter first write about?
A: Not a rabbit, nor a hedgehog, nor a frog – or anything remotely as cute.
The first living things that Beatrix Potter wrote about were fungi. You might think it’s pushing it a bit to call a mushroom an animal, but fungi are biologically closer to animals than they are to plants! Potter’s first published work, presented at the Linnaean Society in 1897, was On the Germination of Spores of Agaricineae. It had to be read out by her uncle because women were not allowed to address meetings.
Adapted from The Book of General Ignorance and The Second Book of General Ignorance by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson, published by Faber & Faber (£12.99 each)