Here’s a puzzler. How do you go from living on a park bench to getting an MBE at Windsor Castle? The answer is one of the most inspirational stories to come out of lockdown – of the pub quiz king who raised £1m for charity
- Jay Flynn is set to have MBE pinned on chest by Prince William later on today
- 39-year-old former pub landlord is being honoured for his services to charity
- He created Jay’s Virtual Pub Quizzes in March 2020 during the first lockdown
- During the first pub quiz, 250,000 people joined the invitation on Facebook
- To date, his quizzes have amazingly raised more than £1million for charity
Just before lunchtime today, at Windsor Castle, former pub landlord Jay Flynn will have an MBE pinned on his chest by Prince William.
The ceremony will be quite a moment for 39-year-old Jay, who is being honoured for his services to charity, and for generally chivvying the nation along during the coronavirus pandemic.
You may have heard of Jay’s Virtual Pub Quizzes. Hundreds of thousands have played them.
They started in March 2020, during the first lockdown, when Jay, who had been running regular Thursday quiz nights at his pub, The Crown in Darwen, Lancashire, set up an online version for his friends and family.
Former pub landlord Jay Flynn, 39, (pictured) created Jay’s Virtual Pub Quizzes in March 2020 during the first lockdown
Clueless about the privacy settings on Facebook, Jay didn’t restrict who could see the invitation to join in, however, and he was rather bemused to find 250,000 people waiting expectantly for his first lockdown quiz.
It was a triumph, and his new fans wanted more, so Jay started doing weekly quizzes free for anyone who wanted to take part.
Word spread and a lockdown phenomenon took hold. A group of seven houses in one cul-de-sac became so addicted to their weekly trivia fix that they would decamp to their front drives and watch Flynn’s Virtual Pub Quiz on a giant screen projected on the side of one of the houses.
Celebrities flocked to get involved, too. Dame Judi Dench played — and had a hoot. Actor Stephen Fry posed some questions (as did the Prime Minister). And Zoe Ball asked if Jay could come on her BBC Radio 2 breakfast show and act as quizmaster there, too.
Clueless about the privacy settings on Facebook, Jay didn’t restrict who could see the invitation to join in, however, and he was rather bemused to find 250,000 people waiting expectantly for his first lockdown quiz
Charities spied an opportunity, and Jay was soon accepting donations. And more donations.
To date, his quizzes have raised more than £1 million for charity — and now even the Queen is saying thank you.
The MBE investiture won’t be the only ceremony that honours Jay, though. Later in the week, some miles downriver from Windsor, there will be another small gathering — one with less pomp but all the more poignant for it. In a park close to the Thames, overlooking London’s Embankment, Westminster Council will unveil a plaque on a bench.
‘Number 3, Riverside View’ it will read. ‘This bench was home to Jay Flynn from Jay’s Virtual Pub Quiz. He proves you are not alone and there is always hope.’ For between 2007 and 2009, this was indeed Jay’s home — or the closest he had to one.
He had ended up on the streets following a succession of job and relationship disappointments.
The full story is complicated, but the potted version is that he split up from his fiancée and stayed in a friend’s one-bedroom flat while he worked irregular hours as a delivery driver.
His mental health suffered, and eventually (‘it’s never for one reason; it’s a slide’) Jay toppled into the void, spending his days wandering around London, his worldly possessions in a rucksack, and his nights on a park bench.
It was always the same park bench, the second along from Embankment Station (he called it No 3 in a nod to our very British house-numbering tradition of odd numbers on one side of the road and evens on the other).
To date, his quizzes have raised more than £1 million for charity — and now even the Queen is saying thank you
Every morning, before 7 am, he would pack up his bedding — ‘so as not to offend anyone … I didn’t want to be a nuisance’. He talks of getting up every morning ‘as if going to work — only my work was looking for discarded coins on the street’.
Jay is at pains to point out that he never begged and never stole. Somehow, he never slid into alcoholism or drug addiction either, which is a well-trodden path for those who find themselves (or take themselves) out of society.
He would wash in public toilets. A common dinner (or combined breakfast-lunch-and-dinner) would be a packet of custard creams. ‘In Sainsbury’s they were 22p,’ he recalls. ‘If I was feeling flush, I would splash out on bourbons.’
Can he stomach a custard cream to this day? ‘I can, actually. They are still my favourite biscuit, and my son loves them, too.’
Publishers have beaten a path to Jay’s door, requesting fun quiz books, and his second has just been published. Perhaps they should ask him to write about his period of being homeless, though, because it is an astonishing story.
The man now being honoured for bringing people together admits that he did not have a single meaningful conversation with anyone for two years.
At his lowest point, he felt so insignificant, so unseen, that he decided he might as well disappear completely.
‘On a couple of occasions, I tried to take myself out of the world,’ he says. ‘I’d been homeless for a couple of months and no one had missed me.
‘I’d pretty much got rid of my identity anyway. I had no ID, no bank card. There would have been no way of identifying me because I’d never been in trouble with the police, so they wouldn’t be able to do it from fingerprints. I’d just have been another John Doe.’
He attempted to kill himself twice, the first time by going on a supermarket trawl, spending his precious coins, collected on the street, on over-the-counter pills. He also bought alcohol to wash them down, and then lay down to die.
Just before lunchtime today, at Windsor Castle, former pub landlord Jay Flynn will have an MBE pinned on his chest by Prince William
‘Except I didn’t,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t even do that right. I shouldn’t joke about it — and I’m not, really — but I felt such a failure that I couldn’t even take myself out of the world. I just ended up with a terrible stomach ache.’
A few weeks later, he resolved to try again.
‘I went to a bridge and was going to jump, but the thing that stopped me was thinking of the person who would find me. How could I do that to someone, affect their life like that?’
So Jay stayed, and found a way to survive, sort of.
‘I had conversations in my head. My radio was my lifeline. I always bought batteries for it before I bought anything else. I had a notebook and I’d keep busy, writing.’
He scripted a synopsis for a musical based on the music of Westlife. He also wrote a radio play.
The most significant thing he did, though, was to accept help, when, in 2009, he woke on his bench to find a card from a homeless charity, The Connection At St Martin’s, under his head.
It still took three days for him to pluck up the courage to get in touch. When he did, they provided clean clothes and ‘a proper shower’.
Crucially, they also helped him get a copy of his birth certificate — the first step on getting him back into society. ‘One of the most important things they do is provide people with an address they can use, so finally I could apply for a bank account, and all those official things you need.’
He was not eligible for benefits immediately (‘It took six months to get me in the system’) but the charity did help him access a crisis loan.
‘It was like winning the Lottery. I said: “Really, I can get these mythical purple notes with 20 on them?” That meant hot food.’
It was a long slog back. A temporary shelter became a more permanent residence, and he secured a job with Sainsbury’s.
He is being honoured for bringing people together admits that he did not have a single meaningful conversation with anyone for two years
He moved north because of a relationship which faltered, but while living in Wigan he met Sarah, now his wife, on an online dating forum.
The couple moved to Darwen, where they live to this day, and their son Jack is now four. Jack hasn’t visited Daddy’s bench, ‘but he will one day’.
‘I have taken my wife, and a few other people,’ says Jay, who describes himself as a proud Londoner.
‘It really is the most peaceful place in the world. If you go there at 1 am, you see the whole of London lit up, the bridge, the London Eye, the South Bank.
‘It’s breathtaking really, and all you hear is the lapping of waves.’
He still loves this bench, and talks of it as an old friend — which is odd because you imagine it would be a reminder of a terrible period of his life. ‘Yes, but it’s the period that reset me,’ he tells me. ‘Reset everything, really.’
Jay is now a full-time quiz-master, still running online quizzes every Thursday and Saturday evening for thousands of loyals players, and he has been the resident quizmaster on Zoe Ball’s Radio 2 breakfast show for more than a year now.
Last month, he set a new Guinness world record for the world’s longest streamed quiz, which lasted an epic 35 hours and 44 minutes,
He already held the title for most viewers of a YouTube live stream quiz, after a record-breaking 182,513 households took part in Jay’s Virtual Pub Quiz on April 30 last year.
Which brings me to the ultimate question to ask the king of the quizmasters: Are you glad you stayed with us?
His answer is unequivocal.
‘Yes, and I do think everything happens for a reason.
‘Maybe I had to go through those years, as difficult as they were, to be the person I am today. I can see the signs in other people. I can say: “You are NOT alone, however much you feel you are.” ’
Jay’s Virtual Pub Quiz Book No 2 is out now.
If you’re having a difficult time, for confidential support call the Samaritans on 0845 790 9090, go to samaritans.org, or visit your local branch.
Can you crack the quiz he’s set for the Mail?
1. What was the spin-off from TV series Life On Mars called?
2. Who replaced Nick Hewer on The Apprentice?
3. Luke and Matt Goss were in which band?
4. ‘In space, no one can hear you scream’ is the tagline to which movie?
5. Maverick, Goose and Iceman are characters in which movie?
6. Which song has spent longer at No 1 in the UK charts: Bryan Adams’ (Everything I Do) I Do It For You, or Wet Wet Wet’s Love Is All Around?
7. Which TV talent show started in 2007 and is still running today?
8. Everybody’s Free To Wear Sunscreen was a 1999 hit for who?
Science and Nature
1. How many wings does a bee have?
2. What is the lightest chemical element?
3. Which gland produces insulin?
4. What is the home of a badger called?
5. If you dipped blue litmus paper into acid, what colour would it turn?
6. Sciatic is the longest what in the human body?
7. Which chemical element has the shortest name?
8. What type of creature is a Dogface?
Food & Drink
1. Hot and cold dishes served as a buffet are known by what name in Sweden?
2. Venison comes from which animal?
3. What colour is crème de menthe?
4. What links a vegetable and the emblem of Wales?
5. Buffalo milk traditionally produces which kind of cheese?
6. How many teaspoons are in ten tablespoons?
7. Which country produces the most vanilla?
8. Prunes are dried what?
1. Name the football team nicknamed ‘the Blades’?
2. In the Tour de France, what colour jersey does the leader wear?
3. Duckworth-Lewis-Stern is a method used to decide the winner in which sport?
4. Which country has the oldest-ever golf course?
5. At which racecourse would you find the Grand National?
6. Sebastian Vettel made his Formula One debut with which team?
7. Which county cricket team plays at Lord’s?
8. Which was the first British club to win a European football trophy?
1. In which nursery rhyme did the cow jump over the moon?
2. In which city is the UK’s largest cathedral?
3. The World Wildlife Fund has which animal as its emblem?
4. Ant and Dec found fame on which children’s TV series?
5. What is an autobahn in Germany?
6. Who was Barack Obama’s vice-president?
7. How long was the Hundred Years’ War?
8. Which was the first British bank to install an ATM?
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