Ben Schott: 'They expect someone who looks like J R Hartley'

Two years ago a book that started as an elaborate joke between friends became a runaway Christmas bestseller. Matthew Sweet meets the maestro of miscellany, Ben Schott
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SEVEN TYPICAL HEADINGS FROM SCHOTT MISCELLANIES

SEVEN TYPICAL HEADINGS FROM SCHOTT MISCELLANIES

1........Boule, buttocks and fanny

2........Luncheon voucher denominations

3........Dwyle flunking

4........To wash decanters

5........Eating Establishments in Finland

6........Synchronised Swimming: Dolpholina

7.........Beozars

TO CREATE A BIZARRE BESTSELLER

Schott's Original Miscellany has sold in millions and has been translated into 11 languages - but its publishing history is as peculiar as its entry on the Curious Deaths of Some Burmese Kings. (The most curious of which is that of King Theinkho, killed by a farmer whose cucumbers he ate without permission.) Its creator, Ben Schott, a likeably posh and giggly 30-year-old who seems baffled by the phenomenal success of his work, typeset the book himself and had 50 copies printed privately by a small press in Stevenage. "I did it as a joke," he says. "I had no intention of publishing it at all. I just did it to amuse myself and to give to friends. And the book was absolutely as you see it. Nice paper, hand-sewn, with a ribbon." Wasn't this a rather extravagant form of joke? Couldn't he have just sent off for leaflets about incontinence in their names? "I had a lot of time on my hands," he admits. "It's odd, really. Yeah." When his friends urged him to take the book to a publisher, he sent copies to Nigel Newton (the chair of Bloomsbury), and Helen Fraser (the head of Viking Penguin). Newton took the bait. "Once people have seen it in a certain format, they can't imagine it any other way. So they just said, make it like this." And he handed them a disk. All Bloomsbury had to do was stick it in their floppy drive and click on print.

BEN SCHOTT: NON-ESSENTIAL INFORMATION EXTRACTED (OVER AFTERNOON TEA AT FORTNUM AND MASON, NATCH)

1) He was born in north London in 1974, and grew up only half a mile from his current home, within gobbing distance of Highgate cemetery. Most of his family are medical professionals. (Which helps if you're writing a short definition of an obscure eating disorder.)

2) He was educated at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he read social and political science. ("Tremendous fun," he says, "but utterly pointless.") He's quite proud, though, of the cup he won for croquet.

3) He spent his twenties working as a photographer - including a period in the darkroom of The Independent - and has portraits of Enoch Powell, Tony Blair and Nicola Horlick in his portfolio. (His Horlick looks wonderfully like one of Matt Lucas's Little Britain characters.)

4) He's trying to put on weight. "I lost a lot of weight because I've been overworking, and I just forget to eat. I like food, but I can subsist on a meal a day, perfectly happily." To illustrate the point, he quotes Samuel Johnson: "For my part, I consider supper as a turnpike through which one must pass, in order to get to bed."

5) He claims to be rubbish at quizzes.

6) "I'm quite a snob when it comes to tea," he says, describing the discomfort he would feel at the prospect of having to eat scones in a Thistle hotel. "Just tea?" I ask. "Yes," he says, levelly. "Just tea."

7) He'll never write a novel. "If you ever catch me toying with the idea, you have my permission to shoot me. Maybe a slim volume of haiku, but that's it."

THREE SCHOTT THEORIES

1) Schott's Theory of Inverse Dullness: "The things that sound really sexy and exciting - like advertising, for instance - are profoundly banal. The things that sound profoundly banal, like forensic accountancy, are really quite interesting when you get into them. I love any kind of expert. No matter how boring the original subject is, a real expert will make it interesting."

2) Schott's Distinction between Trivia and Miscellany. "Trivia is competitive. I know this and you don't. Miscellany is different. No one knows this stuff. Did anyone know that there was a comparative scale for chilli heats?" (The scale was determined by Wilbur Scoville in 1912, and determined with the use of his Scoville Organoleptic Test.) "Or that sign-writing brushes are named after birds - swan, eagle, condor - because they have the number of fibres it was possible to fit inside a quill formed from one of their feathers?"

3) Schott's Prescription for James Bond. "I think James Bond should go retro. It should be in black and white and set in the 1920s and 1930s. You'd have the war, you'd have all the gadgets, and I think it would add a bit of style and elegance to it."

SCHOTT PARODIES OR BRAZEN IMITATIONS

What does Ben Schott make of the dozens of rip-offs of his book that have appeared since his own book became the publishing sensation of Christmas 2002? "There are many dozens of them," he concedes. "I've lost count. People expect me to be really upset about them and tiptoe round the subject. But I think it's just part of the madness. Am I worried? Absolutely not. On a purely commercial level, it just increases sales of my book. And the idea that my elaborate joke has brought all these other books into the world I find very odd."

1) Shite's Unoriginal Miscellany, by A Parody (Michael O'Mara). Includes choice gobbets such as "Twelve random British TV VideoPlus codes for 28 June to July 4 2003"; "Abandoned trade names for instant mashed potato"; "Days of the week". Says Schott: "I haven't read it, but I'm sure it's unoriginal and I'll take their word for its being shite."

2) Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary [sic] by Vivian Cook (Profile). Eats Shoots & Leaves rewritten in the style of Schott.

3) Essential Militaria: Facts, Legends and Curiosities about Warfare through the Ages, by Nicholas Hobbes (Atlantic). Buckshot à la Schott.

4) This Book and That Book by Mitchell Symons (Bantam Press). Schott for people who prefer lager top to dry sherry, comprising two volumes of pub ammo for the pub Third World War. Did you know that Margaret Thatcher was delivered by Nicholas Parsons' father? Or that Bob Marley's father was white and a Scouser? You do now.

5) Fotheringham's Sporting Trivia by Will Fotheringham and Sullivan's Music Trivia by Paul Sullivan (Sanctuary). Both appeared exactly a year after the Original Miscellany, with a woodcut cover and retro typography. Who were they trying to kid?

MAIL SCHOTT

The Miscellanies have a vociferous constituency of readers. Hundreds wrote to Schott to upbraid him for his misdating of the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper album. "And I had a very angry letter from someone in Africa complaining that there wasn't enough about trombones." Most of them are nice, however - particularly the ones that make useful suggestions for new entries. "Someone wrote to me the other day to tell me about the internationally recognised system of colour-coding for queen bees," he gushes. "I'm very excited about that. And I had one letter that went something like: "In all of my years reading, no publication has ever had the effect that your book has had upon me." And in brackets at the end it said, 'I am 14.'" When readers meet him in the flesh, he confesses, they tend to be rather disappointed. "They're expecting a white-haired old gentleman. Someone like J R Hartley."

FIVE MESSAGES JEALOUS AUTHORS SUSPECT ARE CONVEYED BY THE PRESENT OF A SCHOTT MISCELLANY

1) "Father, our relationship has been dead and sterile for years, but if there's one thing I know about you, it's that you're a bore and a pedant, particularly on the subjects of golf, bridge and the correct use of the semi-colon. And I bought you Eats, Shoots & Leaves for your birthday."

2) The Guinness Book of Records is so vulgar these days. Here's a book of random information that doesn't look like one of Liberace's posing pouches."

3) "Son, despite our best efforts, you have taken up pipe-smoking, reading The Spectator and drag-hunting. Please accept this book as a token of our resignation."

4) "Lovely, isn't it? Just press your cheeks against the weave of the pages, and feel the snap of that little silk ribbon..."

5) "Well, it was this or a lock de-icer for your car."

FOUR OFFICIAL SCHOTT NOVELTIES FOR THE CHRISTMAS MARKET

Like Linda Barker, Schott has turned himself into a living brand - though without the braying voice and predilection for stippling. "It's hugely, hugely complicated and I'd really rather not talk about it," he says, but there are a growing number of authorised spin-offs being produced in his name. Has he created an aesthetic which could be applied to anything? "Yes, but just because it could doesn't mean it should," he protests. "I don't want to outstay my welcome. If it all stopped tomorrow, it'd be quite nice. I could go back to doing photographs and get a proper job."

1) Schott 2005 Diary (available in orange and black)

2) Schott playing cards (with a quotation on every card)

3) Schott calendar (comes in a red cloth- covered box)

4) Ben Schott action figure (as yet unconfirmed)

A PLUG

'Schott's Sporting, Gaming and Idling Miscellany' is published by Bloomsbury (£9.99). To order any of the titles in this Christmas Books Special, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897 and save 10 per cent on all orders over £10 (free p&p). Please quote IBDX when ordering.

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