Ben Schott: A trivial pursuit

Ben Schott's exquisite compendia of fascinating facts have become required reading for idlers everywhere. But is there more to the maestro of miscellany? John Walsh finds out
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On 4 November 2002, a curious little volume appeared in the bookshops of the nation. It was a small, formal-looking hardback with a woodcut on its discreet grey jacket; it carried a ribbon to aid browsing; and its pages were laid out in a oddly random fashion, with little pictures, diagrams, lists and bits of typographical trickery. And its contents were something else: historical facts about kings and queens rubbed shoulders with recondite bits of instruction. A list of Henry VIII's wives sat beside a pictogram showing how to wrap a sari. The layout of an orchestra was followed by the layers of Dante's Inferno. Lists of Shakespeare's plays were counterpointed by a list of how to say "I love you" in 42 languages. One entry, for no discernible reason, listed the "Curious Deaths of some Burmese Kings" (such as the unfortunate King Theinhko, who was "killed by a farmer whose cucumbers he ate without permission").

It was barmy and magisterial at the same time, perverse and prescriptive, kind of useful and completely useless simultaneously. It had a charm about it, though: the kind of old-fashioned, slippers-and-almanac quality that English people find hard to resist. In the weeks that followed, they gave in to temptation. Barely a month later, it had whizzed up to No 29 in the Amazon online sales ranking. No Christmas stocking was safe from the cute little handbook of factual bits and bobs, with the stately design and cool typography, the Alphabet for the Deaf on page 69 and a glossary of American diner slang ("hounds on an island = sausages on beans") on page 52. It was the birth of a breed of Schott look-alikes and wannabes, bringing a flood of trivia and cod-Victorian design to an unexpected new audience.

It was called Schott's Original Miscellany, and from the book you could tell precisely nothing about the author, beyond his first name: Ben. You could become fully conversant with Britain's iniquitous hat tax, you could find out who supplies bagpipes to the Queen, but the man behind this procession of resonant trivia remained as inscrutable as Fu Manchu.

His creation went on to sell 330,000 copies. A sequel appeared, Schott's Food and Drink Miscellany, and also sold well, though it lacked the eccentricity-quotient of the original. The author's work began to appear in a national newspaper, employing the same stately design and typeface (Adobe Garamond if you want to know), and bringing the official rules of conkers and elephant polo to a thunderstruck readership. Mr Schott, meanwhile, turned down all overtures from the press, for interviews and pub quizzes alike. Now, two years after his starry debut, Schott is bringing out a third volume of eccentric facts - Schott's Sporting, Gaming and Idling Miscellany - and, mirabile dictu, he has suddenly decided to knock the Garbo routine on the head and meet the press.

This modern Autolycus (the vagabond in Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale who calls himself "a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles") lives in north London, in a cosy shoulder of Highgate. Schott's living room is a neo-Victorian fogy shrine, with its rugs and Regency chairs, its sturdy, embracing sofa and polished walnut desk. There's even a silver candelabra, a porcelain head covered with phrenological markings, and a small metal penguin standing guard over a pile of $20 bills. The only thing that spoils the prevailing Gilbert-and-Sullivan effect is the presence of an expensive computerised drum machine, with electronic pads that make a noise you can hear only through headphones.

Schott is not a natural successor to Keith Moon and John Bonham, the dead patron saints of rock drumming. He's a dark, luxuriantly coiffed, slightly saturnine man of 30, with red socks, turn-ups on his trousers and a tumbling flood of intelligent chat on his lips. He was born in north London in 1974, "just half a mile from this flat", went to school in Hampstead, and read social and political sciences at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge. For much of his twenties he worked as a photographer (including a spell in the darkroom at The Independent's picture desk), before success turned him into a full-time taxonomist. Over tea and jam tarts, he finally discusses his brainchild.

"Why don't I give interviews?" he asks. "I don't think that I have anything particularly interesting to say about the world. There's a bizarre journalistic compulsion to find out The Man Behind the Book. But there's nothing here to find. This book is really a design phenomenon. Do you like Philippe Starck? What he does is an expression of himself, but you don't go and try and find out more. With poets and novelists, there's always a sense of the person behind the words. In my case, I'm more like a designer or an artist - and if you love the painting, does it really matter where the artist went to school?"

And, by God, he means it about the design stuff. Give Schott a second's enquiry about typography and he'll rabbit for hours about nine-point grids and dotted tabs and the Golden Ratio of height-to-breadth or length-to-width.

What emerges (if I may translate for you) is that every teeny detail of the Miscellany was painstakingly worked out on his home computer. Hours of concentration went into deciding which entries should stand across the gutter from which others, to achieve the most pleasing effect. Believing "there shouldn't be too much ink on the page", he eschewed bold type and underlinings, and made sure every paragraph ended flush against the right-hand margin. "It was remarkably difficult to do. I had to find words inside sentences that could be changed, and make them longer or shorter. I don't like paragraphs that end raggedly. I want them to look like a pleasingly finished object."

A quality of obsession occasionally creeps into Schott's hectic discourse. You look at him and wonder if his German ancestry possibly drove him to this rage for order and harmony. But this, of course, cannot be true because he's also responsible for the most random collection of facts seen for years. The actual content of his book is about as organised as a plate of spaghetti all' alfredo.

"No, there's absolutely no logic to the various sections. I think the secret to the whole thing is an entry in the Original Miscellany about the Chinese encyclopaedia that was discovered by Dr Franz Kuhn." He's referring to a deeply mad reference book called The Celestial Empire of Benevolent Knowledge, which states that all animals can be classified in the following hierarchy: "a) belonging to the emperor, b) embalmed, c) tame, d) sucking pigs, e) sirens, f) fabulous, g) stray dogs, h) included in the present classification, i) that shake like a fool, j) innumerable, k) drawn with a very fine, camel-hair brush, l) etcetera, m) having just broken the water and n) that, if seen from a distance, look like flies".

"Marvellous, isn't it?" says Schott, chuckling. "It really amused me. It's sort of taxonomy mixed with schizophrenia." If an encyclopaedia could organise things in so crazily random a fashion, why couldn't he offer gems of knowledge in a similar way? The other genesis of the book was an itch to self-publish, just to see if he could do it. What he produced on his table-top screen was pretty much the Miscellany that everybody bought that Christmas - a handsome vade-mecum of po-faced facts, such as the different periods of mourning that were observed in Victorian times for your late husband, child or second cousin. "I never wanted it to be published," he says. "I just thought I'd do it as a joke and send a few copies to friends. Some said, 'You really ought to do something with this'. So I sent a copy to Nigel Newton [the chairman of Bloomsbury] and to Helen Fraser [head of Viking Penguin], with a note saying, 'What do you think of this?'." (What they thought is not on record. Probably something along the lines of, "Thank you very much. That will do nicely.")

Inevitably with a book of facts (no matter how arcane many of them might be), Schott got some things wrong. By some ghastly mischance, the date of The Beatles' Sgt Pepper album was given as 1971, not 1967: "I got about 700 e-mails in the first half-hour of publication." Drinkers everywhere were outraged to be told, in the tiny entry on "Martini", that the cocktail should be one-third vermouth to two-thirds gin. (This heinous solecism was corrected over a whole page in his follow-up book on food and drink.) Racing fans tut-tutted when he messed up the names of two owners of Grand National winners. Schott is penitent, but defensive. He spends a great deal of his time tracking down facts, double-checking different sources. "You wouldn't believe how hard it was to track down British washing symbols. But they had to go into the book because everyone lives with these things for years and years, but no-one knows what they mean. I looked on the label of a shirt I've been washing for the last 10 years and it said "Dry-clean Only". And clouds, the shapes of clouds. People have no idea what a strato-cumulus actually looks like."

But aren't these bits of information the kind of thing that used to be found in children's encyclopaedias and Look'n Learn picture dictionaries? "Oh yes. All this stuff is in other books. It's just never been collected before. I kept thinking, I'm going to go to the British Library, get a book from the catalogue and look at it and realise - 'Oh - it's been done before.' But it hasn't. I couldn't believe it hasn't."

Is it the addition of the quirky, dead-Burmese-kings stuff that makes it a bestseller? "Even if you take all those out," Schott says, with a touch of pride, "there's no book that has all this useful information in it. It just doesn't exist."

It isn't all "useful" information, I say rudely. I'm really not sure how useful it is to learn what sneezing on different days of the week is thought to presage. "I think that's very interesting," says Schott, "and discovering bottle sizes. You discover that it's more complicated than you thought - that there are different bottle shapes for claret and burgundy. Then you go into the sizes and it becomes fun, because you discover the Melchior, which holds 24 bottles of champagne..."

When you've spent half the day in a library trying to establish the nomenclature of different classes of marbles, I say, do you sometimes wonder if this is an occupation for a grown man? "Yeah, I get asked this by lots of people: 'This is all very well, but don't you have plans to write a real book?'" He laughs heartily. "Well, no. I'm not a novelist. I have too much respect for novelists. I read good novels and think, 'That's why I don't write novels.' Maybe a collection of haiku one day..."

The new collection confirms that Schott's readers will be happy for him to spend many years squirrelling out hitherto unknown facts for their delectation. His books are brilliant at revealing human attempts to apply science to unpromising material, whether it's the classifying of doodles or the scoring of Olympic dives. His researches reveal a world aching with the pathos of trying to make sense of the unpindownable. And who wouldn't envy Schott, who continues to make a fortune out of doing what he enjoys most? Under his own entry "On Idleness and Idlers", there's a quotation from Jean-Jacques Rousseau that seems to fit: "I love to busy myself about trifles, to begin a hundred things and not finish one of them... to follow nothing but the whim of the moment."

'Schott's Sporting, Gaming & Idling Miscellany' is published today by Bloomsbury, price £9.99