An entrant in the ‘mass participation joke’ record

One for the Record

15th November 2008

Heather Harris marks Guinness World Records Day

Just where can you find a 2,000 metre kebab, a 105 year old bridesmaid and a 232 cm dog?
I'll give you a clue – it's more popular at Christmas than chocolate log and is recognised in more countries than Manchester United and Cliff Richard.
The answer, of course, is the Guinness World Records book (its new official title). Now in its 54th year, this weighty foil-covered tomb is more popular than ever, recently beating both Jamie Oliver and Jeremy Clarkson off the UK Non-fiction Best Seller List and staying there for nine weeks.
Now published in 100 countries and 25 languages, over three million are sold annually across the globe. It takes 25 days to print, using 55 tonnes of ink and 26 tonnes of glue and is a record breaker itself, being the highest-selling copyright book in history (with no one yet coming forward to claim copyright for the Bible).
It‘s ironic that this ultimate symbol of man’s competitive nature began during a highly civilised shooting party in County Wexford in Ireland in 1951. Sir Hugh Beaver, the Managing Director of the Guinness brewery, was involved in a dispute over whether the golden plover was Europe’s fastest game bird. Despite searching in the host’s extensive library he couldn't find the answer. Three years later again the same argument came up (conversation was clearly limited in those days). Being a wise old bird himself, Sir Hugh realised that such questions must be causing arguments everywhere and that a definitive book containing the answers was needed – and would sell more Guinness (one of the first examples of blatant product placement!).
Chris Chataway, the record-breaking athlete who was working as an under brewer in the Guinness Park Royal Brewery in London, recommended twins Norris and Ross McWhirter as the ideal duo to compile the book. Chataway had met the brothers at University and knew of their love of facts – no doubt after late night debates in the Student Union over the meaning of life and just what was the world's largest kebab?
The identical McWhirter twins had been working as sports journalists since 1950, and also ran an agency in London supplying facts to Fleet Street Newspapers (some would argue this is now no longer needed). They were commissioned to create what would become The Guinness Book of World Records.
The first edition was bound on 27 August 1954 and was an instant success, leading eventually to a popular BBC Children’s TV programme presented by the late Roy Castle and starring the now famous twins until Ross was shot dead by two IRA gunman in November 1975.
This tragedy only served to increase the public’s fascination with the whole record breaking phenomenon and the appetite for breaking records is still as ravenous as ever; fittingly ‘eating’ records are among the most popular, ranging from the ‘fastest time to eat a 12inch pizza’ (2 mins 19 seconds by Belgium’s Tom Wales) to the 36 cockroaches eaten in a minute by London’s Ken Edwards.
As Karolina Thelin, from the Guinness World Records Press Office, explained, “We had roughly 3,500 records broken last year and many thousands more attempted!” Such is the demand for help and advice on setting records that 13 November each year has been designated World Records Day to coincide with the sale of the 100 millionth copy on this day in 2004.
“The aim is to encourage people all over the world to come together and break records for one day, to mark the day that Guinness World Records became the best-selling copyright book of all time,” Karolina explained.
This year, over 150,000 people worldwide chewed, lifted, balanced, tap danced, cooked and grew body obscure hair in the hope of receiving one of those much coveted record breaking certificates.
In London it was hands up for a ‘mass arm wrestle’, and bottoms up for the ‘most people wearing underpants in a single place’. In Yorkshire, following their attempt at the ‘biggest cup of tea’, participants also no doubt broke the longest single toilet queue record, while in Bournemouth there were no available public phone boxes as the largest gathering of superheroes landed in this seaside town.
But before you reach for your underpants – to wear them outside or inside your tights – be warned that any record attempt is not as easy as it looks. The adjudication process makes the verification of the Turin Shroud appear a mere formality.
“Before we accept or reject a new record proposal we carry out claim-specific research which involves independent consultants and witnesses and can take up to four weeks to be reviewed," Karolina explained.
Surely though, for all those who do get to pass all the checking and rechecking, literary stardom is guaranteed. Not so, explained Karolina. “Out of the thousands of new records broken we can only fit a portion of them in the book – usually around 200“. The weighty demands on poor old Santa’s sleigh if all 3,500 were included can only be imagined.
"The decision lies with the editor. The aim is to make the most interesting, fun and informative book possible, with 80% of each edition being new material."
They also have to ensure there is a good mixture across all the different areas. Obscure human feats always prove the most popular on Christmas morning, especially if accompanied by gross photographs such as the longest ear hair (13.2cms, by India’s Radhakant Bajpa) or the largest protruding eyes (12mm, by Turkey’s Kim Goodman).
This has led to criticism, particularly from record breakers who are not picked, and feel aggrieved when they read about such frivolous feats as the most breast milk donated by one person (135.5 litres; personally I think this lady deserves a knighthood) or the loudest burp (104.9 decibels, by London’s Paul Hunn).

Hertfordshire record breaker, Dave Franklin is one complainant. "Every year I check to see if we've made the book and when I read that there's a three tonne omelette in and not us, it does frustrate me," he said, adding that he does feel the book is 'dumbing down'.
Certainly few could argue that Dave's efforts are not worth a line or two. On 16 February 2002 at the Fitness First Gym in Berkhamsted he and nine of his power-lifting enthusiasts spent 19 hours continually bench-pressing a 50 kilo weight above their heads, to break the record for the ‘heaviest weight lifted in a 24-hour bench press by a team of nine’. Three groups of three lifters worked in relays to keep the lifting going with teams of physios working flat out to keep their limbs from seizing up. Each lifter had only a 15 minute break each hour in which to take on energy bars, electrolyte drink and put Vaseline “everywhere! To stop us getting ‘bed sores’.”
“We’d been warned by the previous record holders that it was going to be hard but it really was a mental as well as a physical challenge. The worst part was when we hit the half way point and realised we had as much to do again!” said Dave, admitting that it took over two years for their bodies to recover from their record breaking feat – hardly something which applies to such obscure skills as ‘the fastest time making a sandwich using feet only’ (1min 57 seconds: ham, cheese and lettuce by USA’S Rob Williams) unless, of course, he broke the odd metatarsal trying to open the mayonnaise jar.
So was it all worth it, I wondered as Dave also explained how it took months of painstaking organisation together with a cast of thousands to make sure all ran smoothly.
“Well, it was for my eight year old son. He tells everybody! Builders, shopkeepers, his teachers – in fact anyone we meet, it’s the first thing he says!”
For another local record breaker, Richard Wiseman, getting attention for his feats is rather easier. A regular on TV and in the press, Professor Wiseman, from Hatfield University, specialises in ‘mass scientific studies’.
He currently holds the record for ‘the largest scientific study of an alleged haunted location’ (when 1,027 people went ghost hunting in Hampton Court in 2000) and also ‘the largest scientific study of the world’s favourite joke’. Over one year more than 40,000 jokes were sent in to his Laughlab website and given 1.5 million ratings by people around the world. The joke that received higher ratings than any other rib tickler was this: Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn't seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, "My friend is dead! What can I do?". The operator says "Calm down. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead." There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says "Okay, now what?"
Unlike the power lifters, Professor Wiseman has made it into the hallowed pages four times, but was dropped in 2006. However, he is less concerned; record breaking is just a side product of his day-to-day job as a scientific researcher. “And because it’s already scientific, the verification and validation is far simpler,” he added, admitting that he has hung his two certificates with pride on his kitchen and bathroom walls.
He also believes that the Guinness World Records should stop going for the sensational, and should help to encourage children’s interest in science by including more experiments such as his.
At least Hertfordshire will surely be guaranteed an entry come the 2010 edition. Our county’s greatest sportsman, Lewis Hamilton, must have earned himself pole position in the sports section for winning the Formula One Drivers' Championship at the youngest ever age.
If not then it’ll be down to me to get typing – backwards. I’ve just discovered that Italy’s Michele Sentelia typed 64 classic books backwards to break the record. That’s only 3,361,851 words…
seog ereH…

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