By Anna Nicholas
It is said that all great men, even fictional heroes, have need of a trusty companion. Holmes had Watson, Robinson Crusoe his Man Friday, even Alexander the Great relied on his trusty steed Bucephalus; but Norris McWhirter, founder of The Guinness Book of Records, picked the short straw and ended up with me.
Back in the eighties as a young rookie, I was lucky enough to have been offered a job as press officer at The Guinness Book of Records but at the time hadn’t the slightest notion of the kind of roller coaster ride I was about to embark on,
the madcap adventures in store, nor the utterly extraordinary record-breakers I would meet.
Years beyond that crazy period I happened to be up in my attic where I discovered a treasure trove of memories, proving to me once again the benefits of being an inveterate hoarder! For nigh on 25 years I have been the custodian of two enormous boxes of The Guinness Book of Records memorabilia, press cuttings and news releases, letters, books, diaries, photographs and several bizarre and dubious
record-breaking objects that hailed from that eccentric and unpredictable time in my working life. As I dusted down the musty boxes and blew away the cobwebs, I made up my mind to write a book about that magical epoch, and what it was
like to work closely with the brilliant and charismatic Norris McWhirter.
I’m writing about a time of great change in Britain. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was calling the shots, yuppies bounded around the City with clunky white mobile phones pinned to their ears, Sloane Rangers strutted the Shires in green
Barbours squawking ‘OK yah!’ and Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and Prince blasted from every radio. That pesky toy My Little Pony was omnipresent, just about everyone was going on strike and we were still in the midst of the cold war.
Back then, The Guinness Book of Records was run by a small team from a modest office in Enfield. Although we had some computers, much of the work was painstakingly manual and the book had only just started to experiment with big,
eye-catching images. Of course, researching facts was never a problem for us all because we had Norris in our midst, a walking encyclopaedia of knowledge with an unnervingly high intellect and an uncanny, almost photographic, memory.
There was never a dull moment in the editorial office and no two days were ever the same. All of us lived and breathed the book, which celebrated a vast range of eccentric human endeavours and achievements as well as containing many
records of academic value.
In his capacity as record king, Norris was a much-loved personality and yet he wore many hats. Born in Enfield on 12 August 1925 to Scottish parents William and Margaret ‘Bunty’ McWhirter, Norris was an identical twin to his brother, Ross,
with whom he was inseparable. William McWhirter was an extraordinarily successful newspaperman and record-breaker himself, being the fi rst ever to become the editor of three national newspapers, the Sunday Pictorial, the Daily Mail
and the Sunday Dispatch. It was therefore not surprising that Norris, twin brother Ross and older brother Kennedy were all high achievers and obsessed with research and current affairs from their infancy. Norris cheerfully admitted to me
once that he and twin Ross were very independently minded as toddlers, with a great sense of mischief. On one occasion they slipped out of their nursery unnoticed and pedalled off in little toy cars, Ross to a level crossing to watch the trains and Norris to the local park, causing their poor mother Bunty, who raised the alarm, near panic. That independence of spirit and maverick humour was to keep me on my toes on many occasions while working with Norris.
In his youth Norris had been an outstanding athlete and an Oxford scholar, managing to complete a three-year economics degree in just one year, followed by a degree in contract law. During his student days he also served as a sub
lieutenant in the Royal Navy Voluntary Reserve, undertaking minesweeping missions in the Atlantic and Pacific.
In 1951 Norris and Ross set up a business in Holborn, known as McWhirter Twins Ltd, which supplied facts and figures to newspapers, yearbooks and advertisers. At the same time Norris juggled sports commentating for the BBC.
It was while running their fact-finding agency that on 12 September 1954 the McWhirter twins were approached by Sir Hugh Beaver, Managing Director of Guinness, to create a book of records to settle pub arguments. The rest, of course,
In 1975, at the age of fifty, Ross McWhirter was shot in north London by two members of the IRA. The killing was in retaliation for a £50,000 reward he had publicly offered for information leading to a conviction of IRA members carrying out bombings on the mainland. Earlier the same year, he and Norris had co-founded The National Association of Freedom, which continues to exist today as The Freedom Association. Its main aim was, and still is, to protect the liberty of the individual and at the time challenged the trade union movement and Britain’s membership of the EEC.
Norris continued to edit The Guinness Book of Records after the death of Ross and later in 1985 became editorial director until his official retirement in 1996.
Norris had a magical sense of humour and was a brilliant mimic and wit. His impersonations and word-perfect recollections of ludicrous conversations and situations would often reduce me to tears on long journeys while on book promotional tours together. As a fellow prankster and someone who appreciated the eccentricities of English life and revelled in bizarre facts and feats, I couldn’t have found myself in a more fitting job or working with a more likeminded
When Norris decided to diminish his role as editorial adviser before retiring, I took the decision to move on, accepting a new post with a luxury goods company in Jermyn Street.
However, I agreed to act as a consultant to the book for some years thereafter and Norris and I continued our friendship beyond Guinness. It was in 1999, while running my own public relations company in Mayfair, that I helped Norris in
negotiating the publication of a new tome, The Millennium Book of Records, with Virgin Publishing. This afforded us the opportunity to work together promoting the new title.
One unforgettable memory I have of Norris was on my wedding day. Norris had agreed to give me away and so together we had set off to the church by car. Despite the heavy traffic in Knightsbridge we were well on course to reach St Colomba’s Church ahead of schedule but Norris suggested instead that we took the next turning so that he could stop to listen to the cricket scores.
Unfortunately, it was a one-way street so our poor chauffeur lost his way and
we arrived at the church late. When I remonstrated with him, Norris merely chuckled and said, ‘AN, it doesn’t do to arrive on the dot.’
In years to come my husband Alan, son Olly and I would become frequent fixtures at Norris’s home in Kington Langley, spending relaxing weekends with his wife, Tessa, and often with his children Alasdair and Jane. I remember commenting
once on the chic bathroom taps in his home, an exclusive label, but he just laughed and said he’d never heard of the brand and neither had he ever bothered to examine the taps.
On another occasion when we were discussing different car models, he shrugged and said that for him a car was merely ‘to get from A to B and B to A’. It was this complete lack of pretension and interest in materialism that in some ways I
respected most about Norris.
Even when I set up home with my family in Mallorca, Norris and I remained firm friends, meeting in London on my frequent forays back to England, and habitually discussing politics and current affairs by telephone. Rather lazily I still relied on his immense brain to provide me with little-known facts and figures, rather than researching the information for myself, and he would always dryly chastise me as he did when we worked together.
And then on 19 April 2004, Norris succumbed to a heart attack while playing a vigorous game of tennis with Tessa and friends at his Wiltshire home. At the memorial service that followed at St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, an
immense gathering of people squeezed into the church. Gospel singers belted out some inspiring scores, and Norris’s son, Alasdair, gave a moving address followed by tributes from Sir Tim Rice and Sir Roger Bannister.
I too was honoured to give an address about my adventures with Norris while
at Guinness and our enduring friendship. Aside from his close family, Baroness Margaret Thatcher attended as well as politicians, celebrities, record-breakers and old university friends and colleagues, illustrating abundantly how Norris
had touched so many people’s lives.
So this little tome is a celebration of The Guinness Book of Records, which Norris and his brother, Ross, created. By the time Norris had relinquished his role, the brothers’ creation had become the best-selling book in the world after the Bible,
having sold 75 million copies and having been translated into 37 languages.
Together the twins established a brand recognised and revered by millions of record-breakers and readers across the globe. I hope, therefore, that through the humorous events and escapades that I recall, to offer a fun and light-hearted
tribute to a truly great man: a man who put record-breaking firmly and forever on the map.
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