Helen Martin: Knowledge no longer power?

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HERE’S a question for all the quizzers. What would you guess is the audience profile for TV shows such as Eggheads, Mastermind or Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, and what sort of people do crosswords?

No, I don’t know the answer either, but I wouldn’t mind betting most of them are middle-aged.

Yes, it could be because we’ve got nothing better to do than pull on our tartan slippers, suck on a Werther’s Original and exercise our withering brains. But it might also be that “general knowledge” is rapidly becoming an old-fashioned concept. The way we live, work and relax today just doesn’t lend itself to building up a store of random and irrelevant information. Unless we specifically go looking for a fact or ­researching a particular subject, we are far less likely to stumble across it far less remember it. We value ­specialism over general ability.

And ignorance can often be misinterpreted as something more sinister. In Oxford, a play telling the story of the crucifixion was stopped by Julian Alison, the man in charge of the ­licensing team at Oxford City Council. Astoundingly, he didn’t know that an Easter Passion play was a religious performance and thought it was a sex show! Christian campaigners are claiming this fiasco is a result of secularism and the Christian faith being “marginalised”. In Scotland one in three school children believe Easter is a celebration of the Easter Bunny’s birthday.

Neither have anything to do with intentionally undermining the Christian faith, and owe much more to a simple lack of general knowledge.

We used to access news, current affairs and world events by reading newspapers – which some of you still do, I am glad to say. In the good old days, folk started at the front (or even the back) then worked their way through to the other end. En route they came across all sorts of stories and their attention was caught by what we in the trade used to call “entry points”. It might have been a headline, a picture, a quote box or a rag-out which led them to a story they would otherwise not have read or factual tid-bits they would not otherwise have acquired.

I know the internet brings knowledge right to our finger-tips, but most people ­pre-select their topics of interest, Google them, and come up with only the stories they already know they are looking for.

Where people browsed between the fiction and non-fiction shelves of a bricks and mortar library, they now pick up their e-reader and ­discover that Amazon, having analysed their downloads, has already lined up “books we know you will like”.

In the long-ago days of my childhood, amusement was playing ­outdoors in the wood, or on ­dreich days reading children’s classics or flicking through a children’s encyclopaedia, not powering up for another go at Candy Crush.

Specialist TV and radio channels, targeted advertising, search engines and cookie analysis, are all designed to identify what we know we want and deliver it, rather than to set us loose on a ­voyage of mental exploration and discovery.

Hence, unless you are a Christian, or possibly a thespian, how would you know that a Passion play was about the ­Passion of Christ, any more than in the absence of ENT training, you would know that an incus is a bone in your inner ear?

Work is long, time is short, we want what we need and we want it now. Well, they do say ignorance is bliss.

Losing the plot on prison farce

I’M currently reading Val McDermid’s Retribution in which a psychopathic serial killer, who was a well-known TV personality with only one arm, manages by cunning plot and manipulation, to disguise himself as another able-bodied lag whom he doesn’t particularly resemble and walk out of prison passing several prison officers who know him well. I thoroughly recommend it.

Or you could just read the Scottish Prison Service report which details how 44 prisoners have absconded in the last four years by walking out unnoticed or being let out for a home visit or an AA meeting (!) and deciding not to come back. Val’s version is much more credible.

Cowgate is a leveller

UNITED Nations South African inspector Rashida Manjoo says Britain is more sexist than any other country. I imagine she spends a lot of time with politicians and, looking at ours, I can see where she’s coming from when she says we have “a boys’ club sexist culture”. She might get a more balanced view of the UK if she spent a Saturday night down the Cowgate.