uselessness; Florence Nightingale's Rottweiler and other oddities

Oscar Wilde once said: "It is a very sad thing that nowadays there is so little useless information." Even before the advent of the Information Superhighway, however, which seems to consist of little other than useless information, pioneers in the field of uselessness had taken large steps towards remedying Oscar's perceived deficiency.

(Incidentally, did you know that the words "Oscar Wilde once said" come third in the list of most frequent four-word phrases opening a newspaper article?)

Now one of those pioneers, Geoff Tibballs, has published some of the results of his explorations in The Guinness Book of Oddities, (pounds 12.99) a delightful collection of curiosities ranging through human eccentricities, history, science, art, entertainment and every variety of follies. There are several old friends, whom one meets in every such collection: the mummified body of Jeremy Bentham, the madness of George III, His Imperial Highness Norton I, Emperor of the United States, and even dear old Gerard de Nerval, who did nothing odder than taking his lobster for walks and hanging himself on a lamppost in Paris.

Yet since one expects these old favourites to be in any collection of oddities, ought they not to be excluded for that very reason? After all, the expected can hardly be deemed odd.

On the other hand, I did not know that in 1964 the Peking Cinema Institute had banned an educational film entitled Elementary Safety in Swimming in Rivers, Lakes and Seas, on the grounds that an excessive attention to security undermined revolutionary bravery. And while everyone knows that it is illegal to carry an ice-cream cone in your pocket in Lexington, Kentucky, I had not realised in Alaska it is illegal to look at a moose from the window of an aircraft.

Clearly it is time to establish criteria of uselessness for compilers of books such as this. When, more than a decade ago, I was sifting through a mountain of trivia for a little tome called The Ultimate Irrelevant Encyclopaedia, I sought a definitive yardstick of irrelevance and came up with the following:

"The second tallest minaret in the world is the minaret of Jam in Afghanistan." Any item less irrelevant than that, for example the identity of the tallest minaret in the world, was excluded from the book.

Since then, of course, I have moved on to the developing field of useless disinformation. One crucial feature of uselessness as a genre is that it does not matter a hoot whether it is true or not. If it did matter, it wouldn't be useless. So how about the following:

Albania is the only country on earth where poetry is legally obliged to rhyme.

Italian master chefs consider it unlucky to utter the word "macaroni" which they instead refer to as "the Scottish pasta".

Florence Nightingale was the first Briton to have a pet Rottweiler.

All complete nonsense, of course. And I made up that one about "Oscar Wilde once said" being the third most common opening phrase. But he did utter the line about useless information. He was right in his day, but now the time has come for all good men to turn back the tide of useless information. And if the only weapon at our disposal is useless disinformation, let us spread it with all our might.

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