Russell Ash: Face behind the facts

Russell Ash is the king of lists, the author of reference books that offer a short cut to pub-quiz stardom. Nicholas Tucker meets the anorak-free research wizard
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Here's a burning question for this Christmas: which is the Top Toy-buying Country? (The US, but closely followed by Britain.) And the Place With the Most Rainy Days in a Year? (Waialeale, Hawaii, 335.) What about The World's Leading Corn Flakes Consumers? (The Irish.) Or the Most Common Lost Property on London Transport? (Mobile phones, replacing hats at the top of the list.) The Worst Gun Massacre? (When Woo Bum Kong shot 57 of his fellow South Koreans in 1982.)

For these and myriad other questions a child or adult reader would either like to know the answer to, or else would never thing of putting in the first place, look to the latest reference books of Russell Ash. Author for the last 17 years of The Top 10 of Everything (Dorling Kindersley, £12.99), he has now brought out his first Whitaker's World of Facts (A&C Black, £19.99).

This cornucopia of lists, charts and blocks of brightly illustrated information about facts both strange or important, drawn from every conceivable subject and then divided into 20 sub-sections, has a lot to offer all ages. Its compiler is approachable and good-humoured, now in his late fifties, and in no way the anorak-wearing obsessive of popular stereotype. He comes over instead as relaxed but professional, cheerfully admitting that he soon forgets most of the information he has put into the many books he has researched and assembled.

There seems something peculiarly Anglo-Saxon in our apparently endless interest in published lists of every sort. While European countries print translations of Ash's work, only British and US publishers bring out such books in their hundreds, a tradition going back to the 19th century. Does this represent a Protestant determination to get to the truth of all things? Or, given that males make up the overwhelming bulk of readers, is it more to do with a habit of competitiveness? Do works of instant reference foster a fantasy of being able to trot out the right answer at the crucial social moment, so confounding a dinner party or at least a bar on quiz night?

"I have often wondered about this myself, but still haven't come to any definite conclusions," says Ash resignedly, in his book-lined study set within an elegant house in Lewes, Sussex. Happy to leave questions of motivation to others, his job, as he sees it, is to get things right. Uninterested in lists based on value judgements (his winner for the Top 10 Dullest Places - Ben Nevis, Scotland - referring to its record low of daily sunshine rather than its social life), he chases down fugitive quantitative facts with all the zeal and cunning of a very determined butterfly-hunter. So what about Crazy Inventions, such as a rifle to shoot round corners or a vacuum cleaner housed in a toy dog: surely those involve value judgements? "Yes, but it's not 'craziest inventions', since you can't measure craziness. And in fact I didn't put in some of the weirdest ones I heard of, because they were a bit rude for a family book."

Sometimes he is attracted simply by the challenge of defining what constitute correct answers to extra-hard questions. Tallest Building - should this include non-habitable structures at the top? Highest Grossing Film - should this factor in subsequent inflation to be fair to prewar classics like Gone With the Wind? Longest Coastline - should this take in islands as well? Sole ruler of his empire of facts, with only one research assistant (at present out of action with a bad back), Ash makes all the final decisions himself, letting his readers in on his reasoning in a brisk footnote at the bottom of any possibly contentious list. While other reference books are now put together by a team, he is probably unique in remaining a one-man band.

He relies partly on a wide circle of informants built up over the years. "What happens in this fact-collecting field is that one expert helping you will then often pass you on to another in a different area," he explains. "A man I get to know who is an expert in poisonous snakes might then tell me about someone else who has read everything about the world's metro systems." There is also his own collection of reference volumes, now well over 10,000 and growing. He is only rarely caught out.

"I once included Loren Acton in First Ten Female Astronauts," he recalls. "Later on I discovered he was a big, bearded bloke living in Vermont. Entirely his fault for having such a girlish name! Other mistakes have usually been due to faulty editing by the publishers. In one book the World Trade Center came out as the Word Trade Center. Mind you, that could be quite an interesting idea if you think about it."

Facts of the "can you believe it?" type are always fun, but there is a serious side to Ash's work. His Whitaker's World of Facts, designed as a family companion to its august parent Whitaker's Almanack, contains sections on environment and pollution as well as accidents and disasters. Biggest Rubbish Producers (US), Worst Polluters (US), Countries that Use the Most Water (US) - it's all there for any would-be politician to use, should they ever wish to. Little-Englander young readers can also learn that their own country is not quite so much at the centre of everything as they might have thought. Look in vain for London in Largest 10 Capital Cities. Don't bother to check for the UK in the list of Top 10 Richest Countries. The same absence occurs in the Top 10 Countries Spending Most on Education. There are some areas where Britain still leads the way: we remain The World's Leading Baked Bean Consumers. Look on our plates, ye mighty, and despair!

So what criteria does Ash follow when selecting topics for his various lists? "I hope always to end up with a personal book," he says. "I'm not trying to write to any formula; I'm more inclined to think of some offbeat way of presenting knowledge. At the moment, I'm working on a list of 10 countries where sheep most outnumber people. So much more interesting than just: 'Which countries have the most sheep?'

"And you never run out of ideas for lists," he adds. "You could take a really mundane topic like apples, and then list the 10 most common type of apple, the 10 countries that grow the most apples and then the 10 most common products made from apples. You could then pass on to cider, and that could lead to somewhere else, and that's how it goes.

"All such information mirrors the social structure of a country and its culture. Take Countries with the Most Cremations. The leader here is Japan; Italy, by contrast, has hardly any at all. Perhaps because I once studied anthropology at university I can't help finding such things interesting and potentially revealing."

He also likes to see "how lists sometimes change over the years. Why is emetophobia, the fear of being sick, suddenly going up the charts? What's going on here? At other times, it can be rather devastating sitting at my end of things, listing all these bald statistics about, for example, which countries have most sufferers from Aids."

Yet, for Ash, "it's vital that these facts should be known; it's not simply a matter of recording tit-bits like who possessed the longest beard." (The answer is Hans Langseth, at 5.33m.)

Starting in 1967, Ash has now written more than 100 reference works, including Bizarre Books (Pavilion), compiled with Brian Lake and including unusual titles such as Shag the Caribou or The Encyclopedia of Metal Lunch Boxes. These are listed sometimes with reproductions of their original covers alongside publications by various unfortunately named authors including Cecil Nutter, Bishop Frediricus Nausea and O Hell. One of the funniest books ever put together for this season of often woefully unfunny literature looking for a quick sale, it cannot be recommended too highly.

Ash owns many of the titles himself, and having a chance to handle actual editions of Be Bold with Bananas or The Sunny Side of Bereavement forms a pleasant conclusion to a conversation with a nice man.

How fortunate that I don't suffer from another of the Unusual Phobias listed in Whitaker's World of Facts: papyrophobia, a fear of paper, along with an antipathy to knees (genuphobia), beards (pogonophobia), string (linonophobia) and - very popular among children at Christmas - clinophobia, a marked unwillingness to go to bed.

Biography: Russell Ash

Born in 1946, Russell Ash comes from a long line of goldsmiths and silversmiths, one of whom was also a pioneering inventor of false teeth. A graduate of Durham University, he has been working with books since 1967, starting as a picture researcher and moving on to found his own company. For 35 years he has been a freelance writer and contributor to over 100 non-fiction titles, some of which have been taken up by television shows at home and abroad. His Top Ten of Everything 2006 is published by Dorling Kindersley, and Whitaker's World of Facts by A&C Black. Married and living in Lewes, East Sussex, Ash has an adult daughter and two teenage sons. He has returned to the family tradition of silversmithing, and has also just completed his first children's novel.