Bishops, professors, MPs, Wallace, Gromit

The new 'Who's Who' reflects the rise and rise of media folk, says Glenda Cooper. Perhaps it's worthy of an Oscar itself
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The Independent Online
Who's Who almost deserves to be an Oscar winner in its own right this year: three of the new entries have the glow of Academy Award nominations.

Nicholas Park (the creator of Wallace and Gromit), Michael Ondaatje (author of the novel The English Patient, which was turned into Anthony Minghella's Oscar-winning film) and Brenda Blethyn (nominated for her performance in Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies) have all joined the great, the good and the plain famous in the world's best-known reference book, 150 years old this year.

They are accompanied by the former British Fashion Designer of the Year, Katharine Hamnett, television presenter Lloyd Grossman and Rory Bremner, the impressionist.

Park, who was made a CBE this year, lists little more than his Wallace and Gromit films in his entry, and Ondaatje also lists no hobbies, although Blethyn says that one of her favourite pastimes is cryptic crosswords.

Relative values abound in the 1998 edition of the big red book. Ann and John Cryer are recorded as the first mother and son to both be MPs. Raymond and Trevor Powles, both oncologists and twins, also appear. Rosemary Alexander, founder of the English Gardening School, joins her husband and her ex-husband in its pages.

Sporting figures newly appearing are Glenn Hoddle, coach of the England football team, Chris Boardman, the Olympic cyclist, and Barry Davies, the commentator.

Some recreations listed are bizarre. Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, enjoys "staring out of the window", Vice-Admiral Sir John Lea likes "writing unpublished letters to The Times" and the journalist and author John Reason says his are "restoring elegant or worthwhile ruins including the Conservative Party". No doubt employees of Alan Morris at Simmons and Simmons are ecstatic that their financial director's hobby is "8.30am meetings", and perhaps the students of George Salmond, professor of molecular microbiology at Cambridge, are less than impressed to know that he lists his recreation as "daily avoidance of assorted professional beggars, alcoholics and deranged individuals in the streets of Cambridge". Naomi Mitchison, 100, says that her recreation is "surviving so far".

From the beginning, the listing of bizarre recreations was one of the ways in which Who's Who differed from reference books which had gone before. The first edition was printed in 1849 but it was in 1897, when Adam and Charles Black took it over, that the Who's Who we recognise today was born. George Bernard Shaw put down his hobby as "showing off", Lord Walsingham went one stage further in the immodesty stakes by describing himself as "a famous shot" and Cecil Rhodes' entry boasted of "knowing Gibbon by heart... has a Sir Joshua Reynolds... has a menagerie on Table Mountain; visits his lions there every day when he can". The Times in 1900 remarked sniffily of the "desire of minor celebrities to advertise themselves and be funny at the same time".

The form of Who's Who has changed little since it was remodelled in 1897. Then it cost 3s 6d (about 18p) for 5,000 entries; today it will set you back pounds 105 for 30,000. The main principles laid down by the Blacks were that there should be a wider choice of subjects than in existing reference books, and no one should be able to purchase his or her entry. Membership of the selection board is kept secret, "to keep them from being pressurised by those desperate to get a mention", the publishers say.

A comparison of those who gain entry born between 1900-1929 and 1930- 1959 shows that businessmen, lawyers and media professionals are marching into the ranks of the powerful at the expense of teachers, civil servants and the military. Women's representation doubled to 16 per cent.

A privileged few get in automatically - archbishops, bishops, MPs, senior civil servants, national newspaper editors, Oxford and Cambridge professors and peers.

Once you are in, no matter how obscure you may become, you are in until you die (when you are transferred to Who Was Who). Even those who have been convicted of criminal offences retain their entry. Lord Lucan will remain listed until he is formally declared dead. There were complaints that throughout the Second World War, Hitler (who gave his address and telephone number) and Mussolini (recreations: violin, riding, fencing, motoring, flying) remained in the book.