The 1979 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records credits one Michael John Poultney with having memorized the value of the mathematical symbol ‚âà√¨‚àö√ë to 5,050 places. That, however, is scarcely any more impressive than the mnemonic achievement of Norris McWhirter, the amiable Briton who edits the Guinness book itself. McWhirter has committed most of his book's 15,000 entries to memory, a feat he explains by saying, "It's the same as a boy memorizing information about baseball. It's a matter of being interested."
McWhirter puts his grasp of world records to admirable use. A slight, graying man of 53 with an ofttimes chirpy manner, he speaks fluent worldrecordese, enriching even the most casual conversation with nuggets drawn from his book. Bring up the subject of inflation and McWhirter will cite the $5,544,000 paid for a Velàzquez at an art auction in London as illustrative of a "distrust of hard currency." Let the conversation turn to the communications revolution and he will note that, owing to a decline in its use, the record for receiving Morse code—75.2 words per minute—has remained unbroken since Ted McElroy set it in 1939. If you're talking about fanaticism, McWhirter will likely mention Saint Simeon the Younger, a sixth-century Syrian monk who perched on a stone pillar for 45 years—which, incidentally, may be the record for the oldest world record.
To have one McWhirter chattering away in worldrecordese is strange enough. It was odder still when two of them were doing so, the other being Norris' identical twin brother, Ross. The McWhirters were interchangeable, Oxford-educated sportswriters who had been hired in 1954 by the huge Anglo-Irish brewery, Arthur Guinness, Son & Co., Ltd., to compile a record book, and they built it into an international bestseller. They made promotional appearances clad in the kilts of their Scottish forebears, mischievously leaving it to interviewers to try to figure out which of the pale, jug-eared brothers was Ross and which was Norris. But the McWhirters also had a sober side. They became involved in conservative political causes, an interest that had a tragic culmination when Irish Republican Army terrorists shot Ross to death on his front doorstep nearly four years ago.
Ross' death was a crushing blow to Norris. Nevertheless, the surviving brother has continued to put out the record book, turning what had been a lighthearted duet into a determined solo. The Guinness brewery still owns the book, publishing it through a subsidiary, Guinness Superlatives, Ltd., which occupies the top floor of a three-story, redbrick building in Enfield, a northern suburb of London. Double-decker buses rumble along Enfield's busy streets and mums push prams on the sidewalks, and the gold-carpeted offices of Guinness Superlatives pulse with purpose, too. At work there, McWhirter is obviously intent on keeping his brother's violent death from casting a shadow over the record-book operation.
"After Ross died, I had to decide whether to chuck it or soldier on," Norris says, discussing the matter in resolutely practical terms. "In soldiering on, the appalling thing is that there's so much that Ross used to do that I now must handle alone." As though to underscore his loss, there is still a mailbox bearing Ross McWhirter's name at the entrance to the office.
It will surprise some people to learn that the McWhirters' record book has its sober side, too. Or, at least, its less wacky side. Although best known for oddball records, the book is by no means confined to them—hence the entry on art auction prices as well as others on the densest metals and the worst road accident. Behind this expansive approach is Norris McWhirter's heartfelt conviction that the contemplation of world records—or superlatives, as he also calls them—can be both entertaining and educational, a pleasurable way of expanding one's intellectual horizons.
"People are fascinated with extremes," McWhirter says. "They like to know what the steel brackets are around a given subject. It may be significant that the average snake is, let's say, 4½ feet long, but it's somehow more interesting that the longest one is a python measuring 32 feet and the shortest is just a few inches—a worm, really. People crave delineation and points of reference. It's a matter of orientation, but it's also part of the natural competitiveness that most of us have."
The wide appeal McWhirter attributes to records would seem to be borne out by two entries that the Guinness book contains about itself. Readers are told that the volume in their hands is: 1) the fastest-selling title ever, having achieved worldwide sales of 34 million since 1955; and 2) the most-stolen book in British public libraries. These superlatives aside, the book is in its 25th edition in Great Britain (where it is known simply as the Guinness Book of Records) and has been translated into 21 languages, including Czech, Serbo-Croatian and Finnish, with new translations being prepared in Turkish and Arabic. The biggest market, though, is the U.S., where the paperback (Bantam, $2.50) is a popular stocking stuffer at Christmastime and a favorite on campuses, and the hard-cover version (Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., $8.95) is more or less accepted as a standard reference work. Of the 4½ million copies of the 1978 edition sold worldwide, nearly three million were acquired by Americans.
The U.S. also has been the focus of a Star Wars-style marketing blitz, featuring Guinness-licensed notebooks, puzzles, jump ropes, calendars, Dixie Cups and dozens of other products. Most of these items, including Kellogg's Raisin Bran boxes and Hallmark cards, have samples of Guinness world records inscribed on them. On top of that, world-record feats have been depicted in a Guinness-theme show at Radio City Music Hall, a TV program starring David Frost and in a cartoon strip that appears in some 100 newspapers. There is a Guinness museum in the Empire State Building, as well as in such tourist centers as Niagara Falls, Ontario; Gatlinburg, Tenn.; Lake of the Ozarks, Mo.; and Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Nothing, however, points up the book's success more dramatically than the zeal with which people try to get their names into its pages—and, of course, onto those cereal boxes and greeting cards. Fraternity boys, failed athletes, assorted crazies and maybe even some normal folk eagerly participate in what might be called Guinnessport, whose main purpose is to "get into Guinness." Some people play Guinnessport individually, but others stage mass assaults on the book in so-called Oddball Olympics that have been held in such diverse locales as London, Los Angeles, San Antonio and New South Wales, Australia.
Guinnessport flourishes because the book contains such a wealth of categories for would-be record breakers to choose from, including many that rely less on talent than on brass and tenacity. Among these are underwater violin playing, keeping a pipe lit and the sort of marathon engaged in by Arron Marshall, a fisherman in Waikiki, Western Australia, who in 1977 stood under a shower in a shopping mall for 224 hours. Marshall's feet ballooned and his body became as wrinkled as a prune, but he said, "I'll be yahooing around the countryside when I see my name in the record book." That noise from Down Under is the sound of Marshall yahooing; his marathon shower is duly recorded in the latest edition.
The U.S. is a hotbed of Guinnessport. There appears to be no shortage in this country of people like 17-year-old Lang Martin of Charlotte, N.C., who made it his mission to crack the pages of Guinness by balancing six golf balls vertically. Closing windows to avoid drafts and working late at night so that his family wouldn't disturb him, Martin tried for weeks to stack the balls, only to see them tumble time and again. Those were frustrating moments, but Martin says, "I was wanting to get into that book real bad." He persevered and developed just the right touch. Finally, with neighbors assembled as witnesses and camera poised to record the event, he succeeded. Martin's world record for golf-ball balancing can be found in the current edition, between the records for gold panning and catching a thrown grape in the mouth.
It is somewhat surprising to realize that the practice of compiling world records started only in this century. The phenomenon began when people in sport, hitherto concerned mainly with winning or losing, got the idea of comparing performances. At first, records were merely a way of finding one's statistical bearings, but they soon became ends in themselves as fans, athletes and sportswriters got caught up in the giddy allure of somebody "going for the record."
An epidemic of world recorditis has been raging for some time now. When Ireland's Ron Delany was the best indoor miler in the world in the late 1950s, he was booed by American fans for merely running to win rather than smashing records, as the crowds demanded. The same thing now routinely happens in the record-happy sport of swimming, whose fanciers yawn through races that, however close and exciting they may be, fail to produce new marks. Not long ago two great industrial nations were locked in momentous debate over how Sadaharu Oh's career home-run record stacked up against Hank Aaron's. In a deep-think book, From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports, Amherst Professor Allen Guttmann terms this absorption with records one of the distinctive characteristics of contemporary sport.
Roughly one-fourth of the Guinness book is devoted to sports, and its sports editor, Stan Greenberg, receives billing on the cover second only to Norris McWhirter. But this isn't just another sports-record book. For one thing, it includes such obscure pastimes as sand yachting, parasailing and pigeon racing, and its sections on major sports contain records not readily available elsewhere. Did you know that a New Zealander named Paul Wilson has run 100 yards backwards in a world-record 13.3 seconds? Or that the world's lightest jockey was a 40-pound wisp named Kitchener, who rode in the 19th century? You can look it up in Guinness.
But the Guinness book also goes beyond sport to view practically everything as potentially fair game for records. Thus it contains sections on business, science, structures, the natural world—12 headings in all. As seen by Guinness, waterfalls don't just gurgle and splash; they compete. The winner is Venezuela's Salto Angel, which drops a "world record" 3,212 feet. Similarly, butterflies are locked in existential competition with a particular great monarch that has been clocked at a "world record" 17 mph. And a schoolgirl justifiably proud of herself for having finally stopped biting her nails nevertheless has a way to go before overtaking Shridhar Chillal of Poona, India, whose fingernails have grown to a "world record" length—nearly two feet in the case of one nail. To the editors of Guinness, the universe is a vast stadium caught up in the transcendent business of record breaking.
The idea behind all this is that world records can be as useful for finding one's bearings in life generally as they are in sport. Contrary to popular impression, however, the book stops somewhat short of anything goes. By definition, Guinness world records deal with the unprecedented and excessive, with the result that the book has the inevitable flavor of a circus sideshow; there are obligatory entries on Siamese twins and unfortunates born with 14 fingers. But the editors rule out gratuitous gore, sexual feats (a section on "swinging" deals, innocently enough, with playground swings) and stunts deemed unseemly, including that old undergraduate favorite, goldfish swallowing. Excluded, too, are collections of aluminum foil and pennies and certain dangerous activities such as that other old favorite of undergraduates, Volkswagen packing. There is also a taboo against ridiculous variations. As Greenberg says, "We'll get a letter saying, 'I did so many push-ups with my girl friend on my back.' If we put that in, somebody else will say, 'I did it with a horse on my back.' They're always coming up with variations, and you have to draw the line." McWhirter says, "One has to continually preserve the purity of records. To qualify, something has to be universally competitive, peculiar or unique."
Because records by their very nature are measurable and verifiable, the Guinness book scrupulously leaves to that other cut-and-paste compilation of superlatives. The Book of Lists, such subjective matters as the 10 greatest cartoon characters of all time. In its section on feminine beauty, Guinness says somewhat wistfully, "It has been suggested that, if the face of Helen of Troy (c. 1200 B.C.) was capable of launching 1,000 ships, then a unit of beauty sufficient to launch one ship should be called a millihelen." Millihelens not yet having been adopted by either the British government or the U.S. National Bureau of Standards, Guinness goes little further than to note that Miss World of 1954 measured a "Junoesque" 40-26-38, making her apparently the most full-bodied of all Miss World titlists.
For all of his insistence on maintaining standards and objectivity, McWhirter enjoys wide latitude in determining what goes into Guinness. Over the years, he has come to recognize records for Frisbee and Monopoly, having decided that they have become universal. Resourcefulness is evident in McWhirter's creation of a category for the largest entity bearing a person's name. Bolivia and the Americas were dwarfed, he found, by a super-cluster of galaxies named after University of California astronomer George O. Abell. "Abell's 7" now holds the world record as most "eponymous."
The book reflects McWhirter's whims on almost every page. While ruling out collections of pennies, he can't resist mentioning the world's largest ball of string. His book cautions that trying to break records for eating gargantuan quantities of food is "extremely inadvisable," but then lists records for the consumption of no fewer than 33 foodstuffs, among them eels, baked beans, pickled onions and prunes. It also relates that a Frenchman known as Mangetout holds the world record for eating a bicycle, which he did, tires and all, in 15 days. It calls that feat "the ultimate in stupidity," a superlative that, while neither measurable nor verifiable, is perhaps pardonable.
When the spirit moves him, McWhirter also spices his book with his own droll sense of humor. The reference to millihelens is but one example. Readers might also enjoy the report that a 19th-century German named Johann Thieme dug a world-record 23,311 graves before, "in 1826, his understudy dug his grave." Or that Rusty Skuse qualifies as the world's most tattooed lady, having been decorated to "within 15% of totality" by her husband; according to Guinness, the husband explained that he "always had designs on her."
One recent evening McWhirter drove to a large house in London's Winchmore Hill district and parked in front. He and his brother Ross grew up in the house, and it had been a happy, if formidable, place, boasting seven bedrooms, a circular driveway and a 210-pound laundress. But now, cast in evening shadows and occupied by strangers, it was dark and brooding. Looking at it, McWhirter said that until both of them took wives in 1957 (Ross at 31, Norris several months later at 32), they always roomed together.
"In a house with seven bedrooms?"
McWhirter seemed startled by the question. After a pause, he said, "Why we could have had separate rooms.... I guess it just never occurred to us."
The McWhirters were born on August 12, 1925, Norris at 7:40 p.m. and Ross 20 minutes later. Their father was William Allan McWhirter, a prominent Scottish-born editor of a London newspaper, who had an abiding faith in the virtues of fair play and legible handwriting. Both brothers were fascinated with what the British call facts 'n' figgers, and they also shared an interest in sports. As with many identical twins, their relationship seemed to be telepathic at times. They often communicated with little more than grunts and gestures, and were able to finish one another's sentences. When one of them put down an object, the other knew where it was. Their tastes were so similar that Ross, who disliked coffee, always puzzled over the fact that Norris enjoyed an occasional cup. Until their marriages—each was the other's best man—their only separation occurred when they served in the Royal Navy in World War II. Norris was detailed to a minesweeper in Singapore, Ross to one in the Mediterranean. The vessels made their separate ways to Valletta, Malta—where they collided.
The McWhirters later attended Oxford, where both were sprinters on the track team. Norris was faster; he anchored a British championship 440-yard-relay team—on which Ross ran the third leg. Norris also competed abroad on national teams. After Oxford, having moved back into their parents' house, Norris worked as a free-lance sportswriter while Ross reported on rugby and tennis for The Star. The brothers also launched a "fact service" for advertisers and for newspapers, yearbooks and encyclopedias and put out a monthly track magazine. Athletics World.
To all who knew them, the McWhirters were simply "the twins," a pair of endearing, if slightly fogyish, look-alikes who were forever spouting odd bits of information. Neil Allen, their first editorial assistant and now a well-known sportswriter for the Evening Standard, says, "Norris and Ross weren't the hard-drinking, loud-shouting Fleet Street types. They didn't smoke, hardly drank, and living at home, they seemed cut off a bit from real life. I remember one of them being surprised to learn that most people in Britain had mortgages. But they had very lucid minds, and I always knew I was with special people. I used to go home at night stimulated."
In view of their later involvement with the Guinness book, it seems almost too perfect that the McWhirters were on hand when their friend and fellow Oxonian, Roger Bannister, arrived at the black-cinder Iffley Road track in Oxford on May 6, 1954, to break the four-minute barrier in the mile—still one of the most celebrated of all world records. The McWhirters were covering the event for Athletics World and Norris was also the public-address announcer. The night before the race, anticipating that Bannister would succeed, Norris in his bathtub practiced what he called a "crescendo-suspense" announcement.
The McWhirters knew a lot even then about packaging world records. After the race, Norris teasingly intoned over the loudspeakers: "Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event number nine, the one mile. First, number 41, R. G. Bannister, of the Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton Colleges, with a time which is a new meeting and track record, and which, subject to ratification, will be a new English native, British national, British all-comers, European, British Empire and world record. The time was three...."
The rest of the 3:59.4 clocking was lost in cheers.
As fate would have it, a "rabbit" in that epochal race played a critical role in steering the McWhirters into the world-record business. He was Chris Chataway, the world-class distance runner, who was also an Oxford man and, at the time, a junior executive at the Guinness brewery. The story of how the record book was conceived has long since become a publishing legend. Sir Hugh Beaver, Guinness' managing director, wondered during a hunting trip what the world's fastest game bird might be and was surprised to find that there was no reference work that satisfactorily answered such questions; he decided that Guinness should publish a chronicle of such "superlatives" for distribution in pubs in which its famed stout was sold (and in which a book calculated to settle arguments might be useful); Chataway recommended the twins as compilers; four frantic months later, the McWhirters produced a book admirably suited, as Guinness' board chairman, Lord Iveagh, phrased it in his foreword, to "turn heat into light"; finally, what was supposed to be a one-shot venture to promote beer became a perennial bestseller.
The book's success—and the McWhirters' flamboyance in promoting it—made the twins celebrities in England. They also attracted attention as television sports commentators, confounding viewers on one memorable occasion by appearing simultaneously on different channels. And they became conspicuous as vigilantes of the fight, inveighing at every opportunity against big unions, big government, the Soviet Union and what they saw as the evils of permissiveness. They believed in unbridled competition and the need for authority, which in a sense is what they were promoting with their record book. Consistent though this may have been, the British public had trouble taking the McWhirters seriously, regarding them as sporting, square, patriotic and just a bit cranky. Even a close friend says, "Norris and Ross always reminded me of clowns who wanted to play Hamlet. They were amateurs who blundered into a horrible situation."
One of the twins' first political ventures occurred in the late '50s when they mischievously disrupted a ban-the-bomb rally by using a car with a loudspeaker on top to direct unsuspecting marchers into a field. In 1964 they ran for Parliament in different districts, each losing but each receiving, by a fine coincidence, 19,000-odd votes. Eventually the brothers worked out an arrangement whereby Norris concentrated a bit more on the Guinness book while Ross speechified and pamphleteered in behalf of the causes in which they both believed. Ross also fought a series of quixotic legal battles, researching them in the evenings, sometimes falling asleep at the dining-room table with law books piled high around him. One day Ross would be trying to block television from showing a film about Andy Warhol that he considered obscene; the next, he would be seeking an injunction against a ferry strike. In 1975, fatefully, he announced plans to post rewards for the capture of those responsible for the Belfast-style terrorism then plaguing London.
For his pains Ross himself became a victim of that terrorism. On Nov. 27 at 6:45 p.m., he opened the door of his large mock-Tudor house to admit his wife, Rosemary, who had just driven up in her Ford Granada. Two men stepped out of the bushes and opened fire with handguns, hitting the 50-year-old McWhirter in the head and stomach. The scene of the shooting was less than a mile from the Guinness Superlatives offices, and late-working employees heard the ambulance go by, never dreaming that a dying Ross McWhirter was inside. The next morning the Daily Mail headlined I.R.A. MURDER BOOK OF RECORDS MAN. (Fifteen months later, four I.R.A. members were convicted and imprisoned for a wave of bombings and the murders of six people, including Ross McWhirter.)
Although Ross was more visibly involved in politics, longtime friends, such as Chataway, know better than to downplay Norris McWhirter's role. After helping Bannister breach four minutes, Chataway himself broke a world record—for the 5,000 meters—the same year. He eventually left Guinness and served for 15 years as a Conservative member of Parliament before quitting to become an investment banker. A chesty little fellow with a Kennedyesque shock of reddish hair, Chataway says, "I don't think Norris will mind my saying that he was the senior partner of the two. He was a better sprinter than Ross, and I've always felt he was a little better in everything. My impression is that Ross tended to follow."
After his brother's death, Norris McWhirter wrote a book, Ross: The Story of a Shared Life, in which he describes the wrenching moment when he identified the body at the mortuary: "The experience of seeing, lifeless, a person who is genetically the same person as yourself has an unreality. There is you." He also wrote: "I felt that I was about to be reborn—not as half a person but as a double person."
Having taken the baton from his slain brother, the old Oxford anchor man has been running with it ever since. Today, Norris says he is too busy putting out the Guinness book to work on the political causes dear to Ross and himself, though he rejects the notion there was anything inconsequential about those causes. He says, "To take action on one's principles is a very, very rare thing, and that's what Ross was doing. He believed that the alternative to the rule of law was the rule of the jungle. He was absolutely doing the right thing."
The brewmasters at Arthur Guinness, Son & Co., Ltd. find it slightly awkward that their record book has come to enjoy great popularity among children. Rather than appear to be encouraging the young to imbibe, they have been slow to approve licensing in Great Britain of the kind of Guinness-related toys and promotions that are flourishing in the U.S. But the diversified, $1 billion-a-year company otherwise tends to keep hands off Guinness Superlatives, a taut operation that produces $600,000 in annual profits on sales of $4 million. As one brewery executive puts it, "We just let Norris kind of bash away on his own."
McWhirter bashes away in an office in which every available surface, even the floor, is piled high with papers. The Guinness book generates 20,000 letters a year, mostly submissions for new records and challenges of existing ones, and while McWhirter has plenty of help in answering them, he says with a proprietary air, "I get the tough ones." He corresponds with experts in various fields and plows through heaps of magazines and nonfiction books in an effort to keep abreast. "You develop a technique in reading so that words like longest, shortest, biggest and other 'ests' jump out at you," he says.
McWhirter is painstaking about approving records, insisting on corroboration by eyewitnesses, newspaper clippings and photographs. He recalls with a shudder the time a young Englishman wrote in claiming to have broken the record for standing 12-sided English three-penny pieces, one on top of another, on their edges. "The record was 11 and this chap said he had stacked 13," McWhirter relates. "He even included a photograph, but I didn't like the looks of it, so I phoned him and started asking questions. He finally said, 'All right, I'll tell you how I did it.' I said, 'Good, that's exactly what I want to know.' He had used a powerful adhesive and attached a chair, table and carpet to the ceiling. Then he suspended the coins from the table. He had photographed it all and simply turned the picture upside down."
Smiling tightly, McWhirter adds, "He deserves the world record for ingenuity."
Actually, McWhirter generally enjoys seeing records broken. Apart from the fact that they justify the new editions he publishes each year, he happens to believe that new records are usually tied up with progress. "A record for the worst road crash, that's not progress," he concedes. "But most records are broken because of advances in training, technology or something else. The Apollo program, for example, was the bit-by-bit culmination of an incredible number of man-years of effort, involving 400,000 people and a $25 billion budget. But it also required the existence of the computer, without which it wouldn't have been possible to do third-dimensional navigation fast enough."
Generally speaking, the world is progressing at a rate that McWhirter finds satisfactory. For his book's 25th British edition, he compiled a table revealing that since 1955 the world record for the largest tanker has been broken 19 times, improving—if that's the word—by a total of 1,190%; the deepest ocean descent has been exceeded three times for a 269% improvement; the men's high jump 17 times for a 10% improvement; and so on. One exception is the mile record for thoroughbreds, which has improved just 1%—from Citation's 1:33[2/5] in 1950 to Dr. Fager's current 1:32[1/5]. With disdain, McWhirter says, "Those damned horses—they don't have much more intelligence than a pigeon." No thanks to thoroughbreds, roughly 23% of the contents of the book changes each year, including revisions for such seemingly immutable records as the world's highest mountain; that one was "broken" in 1973 when the Chinese surveyed Mount Everest and officially measured its height, long given as 29,002 feet, as 29,028 feet.
The Guinness book contributes to this boom in world records chiefly by stimulating the activities that constitute Guinnessport. There has always been the kind of behavior that Shakespeare called "midsummer madness," and in bygone years barnstorming pilots, marathon dancers and flagpole sitters were forever claiming world records. They usually documented their feats with newspaper clippings they carried from town to town, and reliable comparisons between rival claims were all but impossible. As a result, the crazes in which they participated were just that—crazes, fading away as quickly as they began.
The Guinness book gives such zany stunts an air of permanence. As McWhirter puts it "By acting as a kind of clearinghouse, the book is a catalyst for a lot of record breaking. Nowadays, a record only has to be printed for somebody else to break it." Lest the book not be catalyst enough, McWhirter further encourages record breaking by issuing certificates to record breakers and selling them neckties (at $6). He also acts as the unofficial czar of Guinnessport. Noting that in order for records to mean anything, "like must be compared with like," he decreed that claimants for the hot dog-eating record must have consumed two-ounce franks. He ruled that the rolling-pin-throw record is open to women only. Shoeshining? He declared that record available only to teams of four teen-agers and, oh, yes, shoes must be "on the hoof." When setting records for the rocking-chair, balancing-on-one-foot and sundry other marathons, the competitors, he ruled, may take one five-minute rest per hour. McWhirter doesn't just compile his compendium of records. He nurtures it, hovers over it like a mother hen.
But treacherous mines dot the landscape and for all of McWhirter's care, missteps occur. For example, the name of the Indiana couple that owns the world's most productive milk cow is mistakenly given in the current U.S. edition as "Becher" instead of "Beecher." Last year a man named Wayne Thompson was credited with having broken the record for distance swimming when he swam 1,864 miles down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Belatedly, it was discovered that Thompson had used fins, a violation of Guinness standards. His name has been excised from the current edition. In grape eating the test once was: How fast can a pound of grapes be consumed? The record dropped steadily from more than two minutes to 34.6 seconds, at which point a claimant reported that within 34.6 seconds, he consumed three pounds, one ounce. Guinness went for the switch and recognized that feat as the record, resulting, apparently, in this ludicrous test: How many grapes can be consumed in 34.6 seconds?
Some students of the Guinness book whisper that its contents are unduly influenced by McWhirter's anti-Soviet sentiments. They note his refusal to confer the world record for longevity on Soviet Georgians who are said to have lived to 150 or more. The book recognizes instead an American, Delina Filkins, who died in 1928 at 113 years 214 days. McWhirter insists that the Soviet claims are unauthenticated, as do other authorities, and he rejects on the same grounds the claim that Charlie Smith of Bartow, Fla. is 137. But McWhirter and the other editors are not immune to outside pressure. Though McWhirter denies it, some have claimed that because of Pentagon protest, a passage blaming a "civilian-U.S. military consortium" for the record plundering of the Reichsbank in the waning days of World War II was deleted from the U.S. edition. The fact that the passage remains in the British edition suggests that McWhirter still considers it accurate.
Any mistakes and distortions that infiltrate Guinness' pages are probably less worrisome than an image problem the book has—namely, that a lot of what others represent to be "Guinness records" are not that at all. One reason is that the book comes out just once a year, trapping many apparent record breakers between editions. In South Bend last year, 1,223 Notre Dame and St. Mary's students gathered on a field, put Jackson Browne's Running on Empty on the record player and played a rollicking two-hour game of musical chairs that eclipsed the listed record of 1,162 participants. Alas, Guinness meanwhile received word of a game played by 1,789 students at East High School in Salt Lake City, and it was this record that appeared in the next edition.
"We thought we were in the book for sure," grieved one Notre Dame student. As happens with many other aspiring record breakers, the Notre Dame-St. Mary's legions were waylaid by the fact that much of Guinnessport is played blind, without full knowledge of what the competition is up to.
Something else that participants in Guinnessport often fail to understand is that the book doesn't recognize just any old record. Publicity seekers and fast-buck operators are particularly careless in this regard. There was the news out of Los Angeles last fall that Klymax the Psychic Wizard intended to get into Guinness by driving north on the Golden State Freeway with silver dollars lodged in his eye sockets, a blindfold covering the silver dollars, a hood over his head and his wrists manacled to the steering wheel. The Wizard announced he would be guided through traffic by "forces of his psychic energy." If Klymax were psychic, he would have divined that Guinness wasn't interested in such a feat.
The difficulties of keeping Guinnessport under control are well appreciated at the Manhattan offices of Sterling Publishing, the Guinness book's American command center. Sterling's hustling chairman, David Boehm, is editor of the U.S. edition and the person mainly responsible for negotiating sales of the Guinness greeting cards, puzzles, movies, museums and the rest of what he calls "the ancillary things." A courtly, bearded man who echoes McWhirter's emphasis on the "purity" of world records, Boehm nevertheless ran into trouble two summers ago when he licensed a festival in Atlantic City that was supposed to produce scores of new Guinness records.
What it mostly produced was embarrassment. Four women carried bricks for nine miles along the Boardwalk, only to learn that this "world record" feat had not been properly verified. After playing a pinball machine for a "world record" 91 hours, another participant discovered too late that at the time the book did not recognize such an activity. And contestants in a marathon belly-dancing competition quarreled bitterly over whether a particular belly had stopped dancing. The festival collapsed under the weight of threatened lawsuits, and Boehm now says, "It was ridiculous. The people we had running the festival didn't provide proper supervision. We'll think twice about getting involved in something like that again."
Might a bit of thought also be given to Guinnessport generally? It is clear that the most delightful records in the Guinness book—and there are many—tend to be those that are unplanned and unexpected. If there is pleasure in learning that the tail feathers of the onagadori are a world-record 34 feet, one reason is that the Japanese fowl wasn't trying to get into Guinness. By contrast, the very purpose of Guinnessport is to crack the book's pages. Such attempts tend to be what historian Daniel Boorstin has called "pseudo events," occurrences stage-managed largely for publicity. The listed record-setting 86-foot desperation basket that Barry Hutchings scored for Sutherlin (Ore.) High School was an event. The record 75-hour basketball game played at West Virginia's Bethany College was a pseudo event. Events are better.
Yet there is a certain fascination in reading that Kathy Wafler of Wolcott, N.Y. managed to cut an unbroken apple peel 172'4" long. There is also some comfort in learning that a discrepancy in the record for keeping a Life Saver on the tongue is being straightened out. The British edition gives the record as 87 minutes and the U.S. puts it at 102 minutes. It seems that Boehm wasn't aware of McWhirter's dictum that the clock run only as long as the hole in the middle is visible. A regular Solomon, that McWhirter.
Guinnessport's redeeming feature is that it somehow manages to be at once democratic and exclusive. Yes, you, too, can be a world-record holder. After all, hasn't Roger Guy English of La Jolla, Calif. been in Guinness at various times for dancing the twist, for marathon kissing and for staying awake—three records for a fellow whom nobody would mistake for Jesse Owens? But don't tell Salt Lake City gymnastics instructor Rick Murphy that getting into Guinness is of small moment. Murphy broke the 50-yard handstand record in 1975 and had his name in one edition before somebody else broke the record.
"People ask if I really was in Guinness, and I say, 'Yeah, I was next to the guy with two heads,' " Murphy says. "But deep down, I was proud to make that book. It's the best thing I've ever done."
McWhirter notes that much of Guinnessport, like a great deal of sport generally, is in an early stage of development, which is the primary reason why records are broken so frequently. He unflinchingly predicts that eventually records will improve by ever smaller margins at ever greater intervals. Although more precise means of measurement could probably be adopted to keep the records falling, McWhirter warns, "If you cut records too fine, it becomes meaningless. You're just showing off technology." Somewhat defensively, he adds, "I know that some records are more important than others. What many people don't realize is that only 3% of the book is devoted to zany records. It's just that the media pays so much attention to them." In other words, McWhirter is no indiscriminate record monger.
But McWhirter also points out that all records, even Roger Bannister's historic mile, are, in a sense, contrived. He says, "What made the four-minute mile special is the appeal of round numbers. To say that somebody ran 5,280 feet in less than 240 seconds doesn't sound quite the same." Expressing admiration for Americans for faring so well in Guinnessport, McWhirter says, "It's because Americans have such a high level of achievement. The underachievers are driven into zanier outlets." He adds, "Life isn't all frivolous, I know that. But it's not all serious, either. It's the same with records. There's room for all kinds. I don't like saying something is beneath me."
Which explains, perhaps, why McWhirter was at the sprawling BBC Television Center in London one recent Sunday morning, getting ready for a taping of Record Breakers, a children's show loosely based on the Guinness book. Inside the studio he peppered stagehands, performers and everybody else with odd information. Did they know that there were 17,000 classified odors? Or that Finnish scientists had achieved the lowest laboratory-produced temperatures? Eavesdropping over a monitor in the control booth, Alan Russell, the show's producer, said with a sigh, "Norris can tell you how many shows we've done and how many chips I've had for lunch."
Once the show began, McWhirter proved a dead-game performer. He climbed into one leg of the world's largest blue jeans (waist: 76 inches), then peered out, eyes blinking, like a miner emerging into bright sunlight. He awkwardly hoisted the world's heaviest cat (42 pounds 10 ounces) onto a scale, getting clawed in the process. And he interviewed Christa Tybus, holder of the world Hula-Hoop endurance record (24 hours 30 minutes), who twirled a hoop on her hips as they talked.
McWhirter also answered unrehearsed questions about world records from the audience, which was made up entirely of schoolchildren. He slipped up only when he said the world's largest airplane, Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose, was in a hangar in Long Bay, Calif. instead of Long Beach. Otherwise he was flawlessly in command, assuring the youngsters that the world's largest aircraft carrier was the Dwight D. Eisenhower and that the biggest secondary school was DeWitt Clinton High in New York City, which in the 1930s enrolled 12,000 students. To this last he added, "I should think the headmaster wouldn't know the names of the teachers, let alone the students."
He got a nice laugh on that one. Michael John Poultney, the chap who can recite ‚âà√¨‚àö√ë to 5,050 places, would have found it a hard act to follow.