December 2009 - January 2010

Arts & Letters

Broken record

By Malcolm Knox
The ‘Guinness World Records’

High noon. A red dust storm has swallowed Sydney, and Brittany Boffo and Dean Frenkel are sitting in a green room readying themselves to make human history. Both are already world-record holders. Brisbane’s Brittany, 11, can do more body skips – contortions involving stepping over her bound wrists and wheeling them over her head – than anybody yet born. Calmly beside her mother, Brittany follows the Bart Cummings maxim of letting the pressure get to everyone else.

Dean, 45, from Melbourne, can sing a note in one breath for longer than any other human: 57 seconds. Unlike Brittany, he is having kittens. “I’m not sure. The dust storm isn’t good for the asthma. I did it yesterday in the car for 78 seconds, but that didn’t count.”

It didn’t count, because Dean was both sitting down at the time (which is against the rules) and wasn’t witnessed achieving his feat by the 40-year-old Australia and New Zealand representative of Guinness World Records, Chris Sheedy. He oversees every record attempt in our region, as well as supervising the arbitrary, yet necessary, rules; in the past 12 months, Sheedy has certified 80 new world records.

Sheedy is armed with a stopwatch, a counter and framed certificates, in case Dean and Brittany can do it again. Their quest will fall under the cosmetically and, it has to be said, genuinely astonished eye of Kerri-Anne Kennerley.

Guinness World Records is a glutton for publicity, claiming to lead the world with 124 million copies sold. An asterisk is always added, though: Guinness is the best-selling copyrighted book, evading the Bible, the Koran and Mao’s Little Red Book – but counting all 50 versions since 1955 (there were some gaps before it became an annual event in 1959) as one single book.

But who’s quibbling? Guinness World Records will sell about 3.5 million copies this year, of which an expected 180,000 copies will be sold in this country, meaning it will out-perform nearly every other book in Australia. Guinness is especially beloved by Australians, whose per capita purchase rate leads the world. Australia ranks third behind the US and Britain in record-setters. “Australians don’t just go after these things because Guinness exists,” Sheedy says. “It’s instinct. It might come from being at the end of the world, or coming from a prison colony, but we Australians seem to have a point to prove.”

As Jane Hayes, who has been heading the book’s Australian distribution for the past decade, says, “Australians are just a go-and-throw-yourself-off-the-highest-cliff kind of culture.” Of course, the feat she is referring to is like that of our very own John Knobel, who broke the record for travelling the greatest distance between two rounds of golf played on the same day. He began playing in Sydney and completed the second round 14,843 kilometres away in Bensenville, Illinois.

Sheedy, an ex-journalist who has worked for Guinness in both London and Australia since 2000, can remember being “the ultimate Guinness Book of World Records boy. I bought it annually from the age of eight to 13, then thought I was too cool. When I was eight we went to Warringah Mall [on Sydney’s northern beaches]. We saw a man in his third day of attempting the longest non-stop shower. I remember looking at him on the stage and thinking how calm and happy he seemed.”

Australian appearances in Guinness date from the first edition, and the changing nature of these records reflects the book’s journey from the egg-headed, text-heavy almanac of 1955 to the hyperactive product of 2010. The claim that Guinness has been one single book during that time does have some merit, as various content remains unchanged each year; while it once retained about 90%, though, now (according to its London-based director of brand and talent management, Paul Kenny – another Australian), around 85% of the book is new. Certainly, Guinness World Records 2010: The Book of the Decade (288pp; $49.99) bears about as much resemblance to the original as a man with a megaphone bears (as Miles Kington once wrote) to a librarian.

In the 1955 edition, Australia’s presence was most dominant in the non-human world. Our “Tasmanian wolf” was the “Rarest Land Animal”. Our tiger snake was the “Most Poisonous Reptile”, though with new editions came challenges from the South American fer-de-lance and the Asian blue krait. The Great Barrier Reef was the world’s largest, and the Nullarbor railway, at 328 miles, was the longest straight stretch of line. We weren’t just huge, but diminutive, too: the “World’s Smallest Continent”. Our human presence mirrored British perceptions of us. We were the “Least Populated Continent” (three people per square mile) and the largest contributors to Britain’s annual immigration figures (with 13,500 people). We were the “Heaviest Consumers of Sugar” (119 pounds per person per year) and, of course, had the “World’s Longest Bar” – the 298-foot, 32-tap bar at the Mildura Working Man’s Club. Our wealth was reflected in the “Highest Proportion of Households with Baths” – at 84%.

By the second edition, Australia was starting to make its mark on the section of Guinness that would transform, and almost swallow, the book: “Human Achievements”. In 1955, Ron Reunalf (of Southport) set the marathon ball-punching record of 125 hours and 20 minutes; and Robert J Hawke, of University College, Oxford, entered the book for drinking two-and-a-half-pints of beer in 11 seconds flat.

During the 1960s, we were more Aussie than Luhrmann’s Australia: “Deepest Water Well” (Springleigh No. 3 at Blackall, Qld), “Longest Fence” (the dingo fence),  “Most Complex Language” (Andiljangwa), “Record Wool Price” (465 shillings per pound), “Highest Live Sheep Price” (6000 guineas), as well as largest “Marsupial” (kangaroo), “Cattle Station” (Alexandria), “Sheep Station” (Thylungra) and “Sheep Move” (43,000 from Barcaldine to Beaconsfield in 1886). We had the world’s “Poorest People”, the “Pintibu” (sic) who had come out of the desert in 1957, Guinness said, “subsist[ing] on water from soak holes and by eating rats”. We had the most cinema seats per head (7.5) and remained the biggest sugar-eaters, but by 1966 we would lose both titles – to Cyprus and Colombia respectively – and even the longest bar would be overtaken by the UK’s Birmingham Racecourse. Bob Hawke’s record would not be equalled until 1967, not long before beer-drinking and other records of gluttony were discouraged, eventually being “retired” from the book (as were records involving fasting). An exception seems to have been made for the people of Maryborough, who in 2005 set, in 2006 lost and in 2007 reset the Longest Pub Crawl.

Sports Illustrated dubbed these contrived records as “Guinnessports”, and Australians were their earliest practitioners. In 1965, Traralgon’s Terry Ratcliffe and Christine Woodcroft made it into the book for 40 hours of non-stop jiving. Two years later, Australia’s Lindell Bowden set a record by throwing a two-pound rolling pin 137 feet and 6 inches, while Warren Burley threw a 5-pound building brick 136 feet. The next year, Western Australia’s Dennis Blechynden carried a “wire-cut semi-pressed brick”, weighing nearly eight pounds, a record 21 miles. And in 1969, Bruce Atkinson and Keith Hulstaert seesawed nonstop in Forest Hills Shopping Centre, Victoria, for 91 hours. An Australian Vietnam veteran, Les Stewart, spent 16 years completing the Guinnessport of typing (in words) every number from one to 1 million – one-fingered, on a manual typewriter. Had enough? The man Sheedy saw in Warringah Mall was West Australian fisherman Arron Marshall, who stood under a shower for 336 hours.

Guinness’ early sober reference books were compiled by the British twins Norris and Ross McWhirter. Ross was murdered by the IRA in 1975, and Norris continued compiling the book until, in 2001, he quit to set up a rival. He said Guinness was “virtually unrecognisable now, it’s gone so down-market. It’s like a stick of multi-coloured liquorice – it doesn’t contain many of the basic records.” But his Norris McWhirter’s Book of Millennium Records, which eschewed gross-outs and celebrity guff in favour of “basic records”, failed to compete with Guinness and soon disappeared.

Guinness has transformed itself to meet its target market of 7- to 15-year-old boys. Its appetite for bizarre sensations presumably matches theirs. Having said that, it would be hard to argue that Australia’s 2010 records – “Largest Human Wheelbarrow Race”, “Most Whistle Blowers”, “Largest Sheep Statue” – are any sillier than punching a ball for 125 hours or drinking a sconce in 12 seconds. As Sheedy says, “Why is an Olympic sport like dancing horses [dressage] or butterfly swimming any less silly than singing the longest note? I think it’s adults who take seriously only what they’re told to take seriously. Kids take every record equally seriously, because it’s all about a sense of wonder at the fantastic in humans.”

The book itself, with so many mutable records, is an inducement to try to break those already existing or invent new ones, and get in. Thus it promises a pathway to instant celebrity. In this sense, as Larry Olmsted wrote in his 2008 book Getting into Guinness, it was the forerunner of reality TV and user-generated internet content: “The idea that a person could convince themselves that they and their opinions or actions were newsworthy or interesting to strangers, that someone else out there might just want to read about them, began with the book.”

Under the hot lights of Kerri-Anne’s studio, Dean frets and sweats. Intensely, he practises his “overtone” singing. He tells me he met Keith Miller, the cricketing great, when Miller took up Tibetan singing. Dean’s sound is so strangely synthetic that at first I look to see if he is using an instrument. Meanwhile, Brittany sits calmly through the television-studio snafus.

When his moment comes, Dean makes three attempts. He puffs himself up and exhales like a balloon being let out through a pinprick. He holds his note for 41, 44 and then 52 seconds. He looks devastated. He apologises all round. Sheedy explains that the next longest anyone has ever held a note is 29 seconds. But Dean is inconsolable, even if all he has done is show the audience that these records don’t come easily. Failure can be a stamp of authenticity.

Then it’s Brittany’s turn. She steps through her hands, which are joined by a strap made from the belt of her first dressing gown, and whirls them over her head. Few others can do it once, let alone 32 times in half a minute – her existing record. She is also a national gymnastics champion; body-skipping is just her party trick.

Fifteen seconds in, she trips. At the end of her time, Sheedy says her tripped skip doesn’t count. But she has still done 33 skips. A new world record! Applause erupts around her. A cameraman jokes: “Oh no, we forgot to record it.”

But Brittany is as down on herself as Dean. “I was bad,” she says, referring to her stumble. She accepts her certificate and poses a little sternly for her photo with Kerri-Anne. It’s a tough business, this world-record making.

Malcolm Knox

Malcolm Knox is a former literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, and has won three Walkley awards for journalism. His books include Jamaica and The Life, and his new novel, Bluebird, will be published in September 2020.

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