From homelessness to Jay’s Virtual Pub Quiz
An interview with Jay Flynn, the quizmaster from the hit lockdown show 'Jay's Virtual Pub Quiz', about his new book, and how mental health problems led to him living on the streets in his twenties.
This year has been terrible. But it hasn’t been all doom and gloom, there have been bright spots here and there, moments of human warmth and everyday heroics that have made us, despite who may be in charge, proud to be British. One such bright spot has been Jay’s Virtual Pub Quiz, which became a massive hit when it started going out live every Thursday during lockdown. Run by Jay Flynn from his kitchen, part of its charm has been the surprise of its host at the size of his audiences – he started it as a quiz for family and friends, but forgot to make the event private on Facebook; much to his surprise, he quickly was reading out questions to 180,000 people. It was a joyous thing which quickly went viral and ended up bringing guest presenters like Stephen Fry, Dame Judi Dench and Jonathan Ross.
The quiz has also raised £750,000 for charity including homeless charity The Connection at St Martin’s – with Jay revealing one night on the quiz that he had been homeless for two years in his early twenties. The Connection had been the organisation which helped him to find his way off the streets. Now with a book out – Jay’s Pub Quiz Book – which includes both questions to hold your own quiz and stories about Jay’s life, we caught up with the lovely man himself to find out more about how he went from homelessness to internet stardom.
Hi Jay – so tell us about the book…
It’s a weird feeling that I can now be listed as an author. It wasn’t something we thought about, then Mirror Publishing came to us and said would you be interested in writing a quiz book. We said, OK, we can try to translate what we’ve been doing into a book, and I think we’ve managed to achieve it. The questions are laid out in exactly the same way as they quiz: 50 questions with 10 different rounds. I’ve put a section in it of how to be a quiz master, then I’ve put bits in about me that people may not necessarily know. It opens me up a bit – I’ve been a closely guarded person for many, many years.
Are you feeling some trepidation about people knowing more about you?
Yeah there were friends of mine who didn’t even know my background before all this. As the quiz was getting bigger and bigger and we were thinking of a charity to work with, and there was no other charity I wanted to work with than The Connection at St Martin’s, who helped me. I thought, ‘I’m going to have to talk about the charity and the reason behind picking them.’ I didn’t tell anyone beforehand, I just told friends and family to watch the quiz and they’d understand. And on the quiz I talked quite passionately about the charity and what they did for me. A lot of my friends came afterwards and said this has taken you up a notch now we know where you have come from. Which was really nice to know because there’s still that stigma around homelessness. ‘Oh you were homeless, were you an alcoholic, were you a drug addict?’ Well, no I wasn’t, I was just without a home, basically.
I was wary, but it’s been great the way people have reacted.
Was it a painful thing to revisit?
A little bit. It sounds awful but I’ve tried to focus on the positive sides of being homelessness, without glamourising homelessness. I’ve put some good memories in there, and because of the nature of the book I didn’t want to put any really bad things in there because it brings the tone of the book down. The book is supposed to be fun and enjoyable. But I’ve drawn on my experiences – this [shows old notepad] is from when I was on the streets, a little diary I started writing. It only covers the last month before Connection found me, and its nice to have it as a memento. I thought I’d lost it but I found it the other day.
Why did you start doing a diary?
I was 18 months into being homeless and with the things that had happened and the things that I’d seen, I thought I wanted a record of them. Something to look back on. It serves as a nice reminder of where I was 11 years ago. To remember on January the 8th I was wandering around the London underground, or on Jan 10th I fell asleep at an underground station and became one of those announcements about ‘delays because a passenger has been taken ill.’ One of those people I was always complaining about.
But you were on the streets for a good while, it was no joke?
Two years. It was about 18 months on my own and then The Connection at St Martin’s found me where I was. They said they didn’t think anyone would be stupid enough to make the Embankment their home, but for me it was the quietest place I could find to make my home. I called it ‘Number 3, Victoria Embankment’, because it was the first bench along and that was my slot. I was there every night, and every day. Birthdays, Christmas Days, all of that. Some good times, some bad times, horrendously bad times. Some very low, low moments that, now I’m a lot stronger, I don’t ever want to go back to that mindset.
The thing is, in the two years, I was free as well. There were a lot of bad things going on but I was free. I didn’t have to answer to anyone other than myself. Every single decision I made affected me, it didn’t affect anyone else. I didn’t have anyone to worry about, I didn’t have anyone to care about. There’s lot of these decisions I made, in various circumstances. I remember getting punched in the face on Oxford Street, completely randomly, no idea why, just a guy walking toward me who decided to, bang, punch me in the face. I sat there and thought, ‘Should I go and report this to the police?’ but I thought what good will it do me? Because it takes me into a situation I don’t want to be in.
One time I walked from London to Eastbourne. It took me four days, but I knew the Eastbourne air show was coming, which was something I used to go to as a child. I wanted to go so I thought well I’ve got nothing else to do, I’ve been wandering the streets of London for 12 months, so I’ll toddle off to there. What difference does it make if I’m sleeping on the streets of Eastbourne rather than London. Lets’ go and do something fun. Four days it took me to walk to Eastbourne. I got to see some aeroplanes, and then I walked back.
You don’t really hear about the different experiences of being homelessness, it’s usually seen as a purely horrendous thing.
Yeah that’s the thing – when you walk through central London or Manchester or wherever it is, and see that person there on the streets in a doorway or a bench, you don’t know what’s behind it, what’s put them there. Mine was a relationship breakdown and my mental health just plummeted, I was at the lowest I’ve ever been and I’m not someone who puts their hand up and asks for help anyway. I was taught that by my grandad, if you want something nice you work for it and earn it, do it yourself. That was the way he was brought up and he was my father figure.
I was staying on friends’ sofas and I got to the point where I was outstaying my welcome, I thought, and I wasn’t going to ask them for help, so I just took myself away and that was it. I thought I’d be better off on my own, not imposing on people.
If my mental health had of been better I probably would have asked for help, but when you’re at your lowest ebb you don’t want to.
Was some of that tied up with being a man, of staying independent and not relying on people?
Yeah I think there was quite a bit of that – my granddad taught me everything I knew, he put all the grounding into my life. My mum was a single parent with two kids, at the time, and we grew up in my grandma and grandad’s house with my mum and sister, so my grandad used to take me to work with him on the weekends to help him. He’d give me pocket money for helping him, he didn’t give me pocket money randomly.
That was ingrained into me from an early age. But when he died when I was 16, we moved to our own house with a new baby brother, and I was working. I was bored at college, I didn’t like it, it wasn’t stimulating enough so I went into work from 16. I was earning my own money, deciding what I was doing, and at that early age, I was independent.
My mentality has always been like that: I’d always refuse help moving house or even now with doing technical stuff for the quizzes, I want to learn it myself.
Has that resourcefulness been good for you though?
In the two years that I was on the streets that resourcefulness did really help me. Plotting and planning. Thinking ahead. Silly things like, it was around when oyster cards had just come in, so I thought all I need to do is wander around to the touristy spots and they’ll finish their Oyster cards and throw them away. I would go and find them not to sell on but just to keep myself warm on the trains for a couple of hours. Also, I’d worked out that from Paddington to Romford on the night bus, was the longest journey you could take. It was an hour and a half. I could jump on that. And the people of Romford, as you’d find anywhere, would buy takeaway food then the bus would turn up, and they’d leave it on the seat at the bus stop. So I had a warm meal.
And then walking for hours and hours a day, to find money that other people had discarded. In my eyes, that was my work – walking all the time – and my reward was, well, it could be 20p or it could be £50.
Can you tell us about what the charity did and how it bridged you a way back?
Yeah they were very good, they discovered where I was and left a little card saying ‘come and see us, we’re a homeless charity, a day centre’.
It took me a couple of days because I was wondering if it was the right thing to do. There isn’t a manual saying ‘Congratulations you’re homeless, here’s where to go.’ You have to find it out yourself. But eventually I walked through the door – and I’m forever indebted to what they did. That first day, I had a tour of the facilities: ‘This guy here will help you look for accommodation, there’s a work space upstairs, so tell us what your ideal job is and we can find courses for you, or work experience. This man, Shaun, works closely with the department of work and pensions, so we can sort benefits out.’
I remember sitting down with Shaun on that first day and he said let’s get your ID sorted, so he applied for my birth certificate so I could prove who I was. He then said, ‘Lets get you some money.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘We can get you a crisis loan. You have to pay it back but we can get you some money today so you can get some bits and pieces.’ He sorted out a crisis loan of £89 and I remember picking up the giro, going into the post office, and this person counting it out, and I had £89 in my hand. It felt like I’d won the lottery. I was stood there thinking, ‘I could go to Asda and get myself some trainers that are comfortable, there’s all sorts I can do with this.’
From that moment on I just knew things were going to be alright. They were honest with me about being a homeless man. If I’d gone in there as a drug addict or alcoholic they could have got me into all kinds of places but because I didn’t have any issues. It was a case of, ‘Right we will work with you but it’s going to take time. We’re not going to have you off the streets next week, it could be six months, but we know where you are we can keep our eye on you, protect you.’
They had football sessions on a Friday, to get fitness levels up. I’d lost a lot of weight, I’d gone down to a 26 inch waist. So I played football with them every Friday and that gave me something to look forward to every week. They also played in al eague – so we knew once a month we had a league game to play in Russell square. We always had something to work towards.
Peter who was the coach of the football team but also part of the day centre, made me captain of the clients team for their annual clients versus staff match. He asked me to pick the team, and manage it. It was one of the proudest things I’ve ever done, to lead out that team. And we won 5-2 which made it even better.
They teated me like a normal person. And I was having normal conversations for the first time in two years. It wasn’t, ‘How was it last night on the streets?’ It was, ‘Have you seen the news about who Tottenham are about to sign.’
When I walked through that door that’s when I knew how bad my mental health was. Even though I was plugging away and had some good time and bad times I realised what a state I was in. and they just restored me and put me on the pathway back to being the person that I was before.
The quiz, then – what happened when it really took off?
I set the quiz up just for friends and family because Thursday night was my one night out of the week with my friends to forget about the world for a couple of hours, have a quiz, challenge ourselves, and have a laugh. When they shut the pubs I thought, ‘what do I do?’
I’d run quizzes before so I thought I’d just do a Facebook live quiz one Thursday night. I set an event up for family and friends, but I didn’t realise I’d made it public! A couple of days later I was getting messages from random people asking about the quiz. I hadn’t looked at it, so I went in to check while I was at work and there was 700 people interested. A bit bigger than I thought. My boss said, ‘It’ll be at a 1000 by the time you’re at home,’ but it wasn’t, it had gone to 10,000. By the Thursday there were half a million people either interested or going to the quiz.
On the night I was getting everything ready, and I’m sat watching: 1000 people waiting, now 5000 people waiting, now 20,000 and I’m sat there thinking, ‘I don’t even know how I’m going to start this, I don’t know what I’m going to say.’ I had the questions ready but I had a dining room table behind me, and random stuff in the corner. It was off my friend’s laptop the quality wasn’t great but it just went off, and on the live chat it went nuts. My wife and friends were telling me I had people in Amsterdam, Argentina, America. It was insane.
I thought we’d do it once, right at the start of lockdown, but I asked if anyone wanted to do it again, let me know. And that figure shot up to 180,000. I just thought this is my lockdown then. I thought it’d peter out after a month but it hasn’t, we’ve got a hardcore audience of about 40,000 every Thursday night.
A lot of people said you need to do it for charity and I thought I want the quiz to be free but we’ll put a charity focus out there. To raise nearly £750,000 has been insane.
Why have people connected with it?
From my point of view it’s because it’s so simple for anyone to do. You just need to grab a pen and a piece of paper, either listen to me or look at the questions on screen. We’re all competitive so you can compete with friends and family to see who can get the best score. Plus I’m an idiot – 7 months in now and I still don’t believe this is all happening to me. I make mistakes. The best mistake was on Saturday night, I put a question up, ‘The bull is related to which star sign?’ I hadn’t checked through my slides properly, so when I went to the slide instead of saying Taurus, it said Justin Timberlake. So social media went mad for it…but people say, ‘This is why we play the quiz – because it’s genuine.’ They saw my reaction!
I’m still me. My mum keeps saying I’m a celebrity now but I say I’m not, I’m just an idiot who asks questions every Thursday night on Youtube. But it’s that warmth – it comes from my living room and people feel part of it which is why people have stuck with us.
Finally, how did the celebrity appearances come about?
The main three celebrities who presented, Stephen Fry, and Jonathan Ross and Scarlett Moffat – although the latter two did their own quizzes but on the channel – came through Alzheimer’s Research. We were working with them and they said we wanted to make it as big as we possibly can and would you be interested in having Stephen fry co-presenting. ‘What? Really?’ One of the biggest things we have is ‘Geberal Knowledge’ round, which came from one of my mistakes, and we got him to say, ‘This is Geberal Knowledge.’ It was really nice, he embraced the fun of it.
Gary Barlow performed on it, Maverick Sabre and Rick Astley. Rick Astley was the pinnacle, he was great, I spoke to him beforehand he knew all about the quiz he’d done his research, so he knew what he was doing, he was really warm, really genuine, and he was brilliant.
Jay’s Pub Quiz Book written by Jay Flynn will be published by Mirror Books on Thursday 8th October 2020, priced at £12.99.
#JaysVirtualPubQuiz is live from 19:50 BST Thursdays and Saturdays for a 20:15 quiz start time at youtube.com/TheVirtualPubQuiz
A book launch Q&A will be taking place straight after #JaysVirtualPubQuiz finishes on Thursday 8th October for fans to ask Jay any questions, ending at 22:00 BST. There will also be an exclusive performance from a mystery guest at 21:20 BST.
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