Have I got 'Who's Who' for you: Paul Merton joins the top people

It used to be the Establishment bible, chronicling the details of archbishops, peers and dons. But as the 149th edition of Who's Who is published next month, the great and the good have been joined by the naff.

In company with the first female chaplain to the Queen and the president of China, the latest list of Britain's creme de la creme includes record producer Pete Waterman and comedians Ruby Wax and Alexei Sayle.

While the members of the Establishment featured in the latest edition reveal all the traits one would expect of their class - Oxbridge education, membership of clubs such as the Reform and the Carlton - the lives of celebrities are a mixture of the unexpected and the banal.

Paul James Martin - or, as he is better known, Paul Merton - makes his first appearance, revealing that his job before he became a comic was that of a civil servant at the Department of Employment. And Richard Curtis, writer of television's Not the Nine O'clock News, Blackadder and the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral, lists his recreations as "too much TV, too many films and too much pop music", while comedian Alexei Sayle turns out to be an honorary professor of Thames Valley University.

For some of the entrants, their pastimes prove revealing. Those who expect sensations from the famously fiery chef Marco Pierre White can take comfort from the fact that one of his favourite activities is bird-watching. But some of the recreations mentioned in the 1997 edition, gleaned from the entry forms every person fills in, prove more bizarre. They include "sharpening pencils and horizontal reflection" from the editor of The Lancet, Lucinda Lambton's "talking to dogs", and "ice-cream" for William Kay, city editor of the Mail on Sunday.

Entries from more traditional occupations are dominated by women this year, including the novelist Pat Barker, who won the 1995 Booker Prize, and sculptor Rachel Whiteread, who won the 1993 Turner Prize.

The form of Who's Who, which is due to be published on 9 January, has changed little since 1897 when it was remodelled. The principles laid down when Adam and Charles Black took it over were that there should be a wider choice of subjects than in existing reference books, no one should be able to purchase an entry, there should be no subscription and the book should always be sold at a net price through the booksellers (it was first sold at 3s 6d - this year it will set you back pounds 98).

Getting into Who's Who is about as secretive as selecting the next pope. Or more so. At least everyone knows who the cardinals are making the choice in the Vatican as the world waits for the white smoke to rise.

The Who's Who selection board, in marked contrast, is a fiercely guarded secret "to keep them from being pressurised by those desperate to get a mention", according to a Who's Who spokeswoman. 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 also remain listed until he is formally declared dead.

Of those approached, it is a select few who have refused to join. The reclusive Barclay twins, property tycoons, have refused entry on three successive years and tycoon Tiny Rowland has always turned down the offer, too.

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