Paul Fennessy speaks to Craig Glenday, director of the Guinness World Records London headquarters and learns more about their coterie of eccentric exhibitionists…
To partially borrow a quote from the late, great Bill Shankly, “Some people think that Guinness World Records are a matter of life and death. They’re much more important than that.” This is, at least, the attitude you might adopt after hearing a few stories from Craig Glenday, one of the fundamental contributors to this exotic operation.
The concept for the records emerged in 1951 when Sir Hugh Beaver, the managing director of the Guinness Brewery, became embroiled in a debate during a shooting trip in County Wexford. His quarrel related to the identity of the fastest game bird in Europe, disputed as being either the koshin golden plover or the grouse.
Beaver subsequently sought to create a book (to be distributed in pubs where such debates would be frequent) to solve such intriguing questions. He was soon introduced to Norris and Ross McWhirter, twins who at the time were in charge of overseeing a fact-finding agency in London.
Consequently, the very first Guinness Book of World Records was published in August 1954, and would quickly become a worldwide phenomenon – not to mention give rise to an abundance of quirky fame-seekers.
From convincing their local doctors to lie inordinately to travelling thousands of miles on a pogo stick, participants tend to engage in ludicrously extreme measures in order to attain a mere vestige of notoriety. Moreover, far from constituting a bit of feckless fun, the unique process of attempted record-breaking often incorporates experts from various fields, as well as an assortment of statisticians and multilinguists to oversee this elaborate exercise.
The complicated procedure is ready to properly begin when the application to break a record is deemed acceptable in the first place. According to Glenday eighty per cent of the entries are deemed inadequate for various reasons.
He adds that the association has had “quite a lot of trouble” in the past with people who neglected to fill out the necessary applications before instigating their respective record attempts. “One guy travelled on a pogo stick all the way from Moscow to our office in London. He told us he had broken the record and we just went, ‘so?’”
As a result of the excessive amount of emails Glenday and his colleagues typically receive – 1,000 a week on average – they have even been forced to adapt the application procedure to some extent.
“We want to encourage emails but we’ve had to make [the process] more complicated. We believe that if you’re not that determined, then you don’t deserve to be considered.”
Curiously, Glenday also asserts that the number of emails they receive invariably depends upon what’s on TV. “If The X-Factor is on or if there’s a record-related show on Sky, there’s normally a huge sub-surge of applicants,” he says.
“It generally takes us about six weeks to respond to all those who apply. If we do like the idea, we go to an official body and get an opinion on it.”
Some records, he notes, require an enormous amount of effort to validate. “For example, we had one for the most fuel efficient drive around the world. That took months and months to sort out.”
It’s hardly surprising that the length of the process can often be protracted given the depth of complexity which it routinely demands. “Last year 206 countries sent us applications – often in their own language,” he laughs.
“One guy travelled on a pogo stick all the way from Moscow to our office in London. He told us he had broken the record and we just went, ‘so?’”
And what happens if there’s no one available to translate? “We cover about 14 languages in the office. If none of those suffice, we try to get something translated. If we can’t, we just have to get back to them in English. We have offices in the US and Tokyo, so we can contact someone there if necessary.”
Glenday and Co. evidently take their jobs very seriously. He describes how they invoke the rules of each record with the utmost level of scrutiny and “treat it like a sport” essentially.
“We usually accept video evidence and two witness statements, but for a few categories, we insist on being there. [Witnesses] cannot be related to the participant – we had an organist who played the organ for 33 hours, but his witnesses were his Mum and Dad. And we’re not prepared to trust doctors’ statements as they’ve been known to lie and exaggerate.”
An actual doctor compromised his integrity for the sake of some silly record? “We did catch someone – but there’s a lot at stake like national pride. It’s like a sporting event. We also had one person who complained to the Queen after their offer was rejected. It’s as if he thought, ‘pay your taxes and get a free Guinness World Record’.”
Unsurprisingly, given their proclivity for eccentricity, the United States is the country which particularly excels at this strange phenomenon of record garnering. “In terms of current categories,” he says, “USA is top of the list by far. They have 4,455 live record holders.”
Furthermore, Glenday tells otwo that Ireland lies a respectable 25th in the record-breaking stakes with 103 citizens holding a distinction in one specific category. He also asserts that Scandinavian countries and in particular, Finland, relish the more bizarre records like “wife carrying” and “mobile-phone throwing”.
For decades now, such records have been compiled annually for the famous Guinness World Records book, resulting in the perfect Christmas gift for freak fetishists and casual fans alike. Glenday describes how one of the primary sources they rely on to generate profit is through their sales, in which they update the various records installed over the course of the previous twelve months.
Given the ubiquity of internet access nowadays, it would seem safe to assume that their book sales have dwindled markedly – on the contrary though, according to Glenday.
“And we’re not prepared to trust doctors’ statements as they’ve been known to lie and exaggerate”
“We keep track of our book sales and we had a peak for the millennium and then a dip, but now it’s gone beyond the peak again and last year, we had our best ever year. It was a real surprise.”
He attributes this unexpected increase in demand to the fact that people had less money and consequently “wanted to spend money on something they trusted”. All those involved it seems– from the world’s fastest talker to the person with the most watermelons smashed on his head – have evidently caught the public’s imagination and continue to do so.
Since Craig Glenday has inevitably witnessed a considerable number of these sights during his tenure as director, otwo asks him to select the most endearingly bizarre record he has ever observed.
“It would probably be Lee Redmond and Melvin Boothe for the longest fingernails in the female and male categories respectively. Lee had them since 1979, only to lose them in a car accident recently.”
He goes on to say that she has since recovered from the crash. Nonetheless, he plans to visit her anyway in order to ascertain “how she’s dealing mentally” following the loss of what was plainly an intrinsic part of her identity.
Despite Redmond’s unique hand extensions, Glenday recounts how she could adequately deal with most everyday tasks. “She could always do things like make us tea. There were only two things she couldn’t do – she couldn’t get a sweater on, and she had difficulty going to the toilet in an airplane cubicle.”
And in contrast with Redmond’s tendency to bask in the attention she receives, her male counterpart has chosen to shun the limelight. “Melvin has remained a recluse,” affirms Glenday.
Others can also sometimes be reluctant to participate: “We don’t have [the record for] Heaviest Man at the moment. They tend not to volunteer as they can be quite embarrassed about it – but we have a team of consultant GPs who are always looking for things.”
Nonetheless, most people thrive from the publicity their dubious achievements provoke. For instance, the woman with the most body piercings, Elaine Davidson, cultivated a career travelling the world’s various television networks in light of her burgeoning fame.
Over the years, the association has also encountered innumerable controversies, many of which concerned ethical and safety issues (all alcohol-related records have unsurprisingly been removed for health reasons). And while some commentators regard the industry as exploitative and believe it constitutes little more than a glorified freak show, Glenday views the enterprise positively overall.
“Athletes and actors will always be recognised, but we reward achievements that not a lot of people would recognise. Some people can be quite obsessive about it and that’s not necessarily a bad thing – it’s a human thing.”
Such talk has inspired otwo to attempt to break a record of our own volition, but the key question remains: what record, if any at all, can feasibly be bested by this humble publication? “Briefest concluding paragraph for a newspaper article”, perhaps?