It's years since I looked at a Guinness Book of Records, so I thought I would buy the new 50th anniversary edition, and bring my reference library up to date. I do have a Guinness Book of Records already. It's just that it was published in 1956, and I suspect that some of the records may have been updated since then.
Well, it's not really the records that have been updated. The name has changed from The Guinness Book of Records to Guinness World Records 2005. The whole format has changed, too. The old Guinness looked more like a psalm book, or even a Bible, with a sober dark blue cover enlivened only by the discreet golden Guinness harp. The new Guinness has huge lettering on a glitzy gold cover. It's the difference between a librarian and a man with a megaphone.
And the link with Guinness stout has been severed in the intervening 50 years. The original edition has an introduction by the chairman of Arthur Guinness & Co, Ltd, the Earl of Iveagh. What his Lordship wrote in October 1956 is very interesting, more interesting perhaps now than it was then ...
"Wherever people congregate to talk, they will argue, and sometimes the joy lies in the arguing and would be lost if there were any definite answer. But more often the argument takes place on a dispute of fact, and it can be very exasperating if there is no immediate means of settling the argument. Who was the first to swim the Channel? Where is England's deepest well, or Scotland's highest tree, Ireland's oldest church? How many died in history's worst rail crash? Who gained the biggest majority in Parliament? What is the greatest weight a man has ever lifted? How much heat these innocent questions can raise! Guinness hopes that it may assist in resolving many such disputes, and may, we hope, turn heat into light."
Why Guinness, you may ask? Well, it was all because Chris Chataway was working for them at the time, and when the idea of a reference book came up young Chataway said, "I know just the people who could do that, sir, they're called Ross and Norris MacWhirter," and the rest is history. Suddenly there was a book people could keep behind the bar to settle any kind of argument.
Except that it's not that kind of book any more. I have been through the new, gold-plated Guinness World Records 2005 as carefully as I can, and can find no information on who was the first to swim the Channel. Or the fastest. Or the youngest. Or anything about swimming the Channel at all.
I have also been unable to find any information on the deepest well in England, or indeed much about that sort of thing at all. The old Guinness had a whole section labelled, somewhat riskily, "Boring". The new Guinness is not taking that risk. Nor is there anything about Scotland's highest tree. Or Ireland's oldest church. Or Parliamentary majorities. Or even, I think, rail crashes.
With the partial exception of weight-lifting, not a single one of the questions playfully raised by Lord Iveagh in 1956 can be answered by the book known as "Guinness World Records 2005".
If you want to settle a pub argument in 2004, you'd be crazy to go to Guinness World Records 2005. Actually, you'd be crazy to go to it at all, unless you wanted to know who has the largest ice-lolly stick collection in the world, or the most Pepsi cans from around the world. But I have never been in a pub conversation in which someone said: "I wonder who has got the most yo-yos in a private collection," or "What's the most Smarties eaten by someone using a chopstick in three minutes?"
It's humbling to realise that there is a reference work which tells you that, but doesn't know who first swam the Channel.
I think someone would make a fortune if they produced a simple reference book which told you about the deepest well, the worst train crash, the highest tree in Scotland and so on. Just an idea.
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