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October 11, 2007

William D. Rubinstein mourns the decline and fall of the Guinness Book of World Records

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

William D. Rubinstein - professor of modern history at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, author of Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution and co-author of The Richest of the Rich: The Wealthiest 250 People in Britain Since 1066 - mourns the decline of the Guinness Book of World Records.

The Guinness Book of World Records (henceforth GBWR) was founded in 1955 as the Guinness Book of Superlatives by the twins Norris (1925-2004) and Ross (1925-1975) McWhirter. It was established and funded specifically by the chairman of Guinness Breweries to resolve bar-room-type controversies such as "Who was the greatest air ace in World War Two?" and, to their surprise, became the best-selling British book of 1955.

Since then it has appeared in countless annual editions, in Britain and throughout the world, and has sold nearly 100 million copies in all. The McWhirters - Ross was of course assassinated by IRA gunmen in London in 1975 because of his high-profile calls for the government to get tough on IRA terrorists - worked tremendously hard and painstakingly to be accurate, an aim which made the GBWR, while they edited it, universally respected. This is probably not appreciated or understood by many who are familiar with the GBWR. What this work did in many cases, and in the name of strict accuracy, was to diminish exaggerated claims and suppositions, including long-accepted claims, but which had no factual basis and were in many cases purely nonsensical, all in the name of producing strictly accurate information.

A good example of this was the work's treatment of the category of The Oldest Person in the World. Before the GBWR appeared, it was widely believed that some people had lived to be 150 or even older, for instance Thomas Parr - "Old Parr" as he was known - who allegedly lived from 1483 until 1635. Parr supposedly fathered an illegitimate child at the age of 105 (for which he was forced to do penance), became so famous that he was introduced to King Charles I, and finally dropped dead at the age of only 152.

The GBWR comprehensively debunked all such tales, and provided irrefutable evidence that virtually no-one in the history of the world has ever lived to be 115, let alone 152. (The oldest person whose age has been definitely and conclusively established was the French woman Jean Calumet, who died in 1997 at the age of 122. She was the lady who, as a girl, had met Vincent Van Gogh in her father's shop.) The old GBWR was chiefly responsible for replacing science fiction with facts in such topics as this and a hundred others.

The old GBWR often provided long, deeply researched lists of such topics as the highest point in every country on earth, the largest and smallest species by type of animal and plant, and so on. It did this in edition after edition, and in a dozen or so spin-off volumes, all models of accuracy and also of dry wit.

In the mid-1990s the GBWR changed hands. The McWhirters and their legacy were out, and so, too, was Guinness Brewery - although the name lingers on. I was aware of this change, but had not really looked at the newer editions of the GBWR until the 2008 edition appeared a week or two ago.

In place of the McWhirters' deeply-researched accuracy has come what can only be described as an illiterate, offensive, juvenile freak show, with each edition apparently descending further and further from the work's original aims. If you think that I am exaggerating, I would suggest that you glance at the new edition, ubiquitously available in every bookshop and news agent.

Most of the current edition is taken up by listing such vital "records" - opening the book randomly - as the largest pillow fight, the largest game of leap frog, the longest female beard [sic], the largest rock, paper, and scissors contest, the longest salami (1853 feet long), the longest sausage roll (a mere 364 feet), and so on, absurdly and worthlessly.

This might have a place on one of the more disreputable television shows aimed at sub-teenagers, but no adult can possibly read it without yawning. Page 287 of the current edition consists of a "Stop Press" list of newly-set records, a potpourri which includes the longest parade of Ferraris, the longest parade of Mercedes-Benzes, the most balloons inflated in an hour, the most doughnuts eaten in three minutes, and the largest sari (2106 feet).

Serious topics, which might have some wider interest, appear to have been ditched overboard (suggesting a new world's record category - "most serious topics ditched overboard", or perhaps, "the worst decline in standards in a reference book"). To take one example, the meagre table (p. 67) of the World's Oldest Living People (not the oldest-ever, which has been discarded, only living people) was compiled not the the GBWR staff, but by the "Gerontology Research Group", a separate body having no connection with the GBWR with a separate web site. Remarkably, the GBWR today has an Editor-in-Chief (Craig Glenday), a Deputy Editor, an Editorial Team of four, a "Records Management Team" of ten, plus no less than seventeen "senior consultants", although these thirty-three individuals surely do less valuable work today than the two McWhirter twins did by themselves fifty years ago, pre-internet.

Around ten or twelve pages of the 2008 edition, the "Editor's Introduction", consists of nothing but self-puffery by Guinness World Records Ltd., with endless photographs of their purported "records". Strangely enough, however, the book gives no address for Guinness World Records Ltd., and nor are the McWhirters mentioned anywhere in the book, one assumes to prevent their turning over in their graves. The book's illustrations are certainly eye-catching, and will instantly appeal to their apparent audience of snotty-nosed eleven year olds.

In many ways the sad saga of the GBWR surely constitutes an epitome of the decline of British culture as a whole during the past half-century, from the enviable, the world-class, and the painstaking, to Blair-era Pop rubbish - for that is what the GBWR is today.

I fully appreciate that the book is not published by a charity, and that, as the American saying goes, "no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people" - nor of the British. To be viable, the GBWR, which appears only once a year, has to sell by the zillions, and therefore has to look way downmarket.

Arguably so - but not inevitably so, since the McWhirters became world famous, and highly successful, by insisting on high rather than low standards. Perhaps like Britain itself, down it goes and will go, unless someone steps in and fills the unfilled niche market at the top end.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth. He is the author of Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution, (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and co-author of The Richest of the Rich: The Wealthiest 250 People in Britain Since 1066, (Harriman House, 2007).

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