To make it official, the Guinness World Records Editor-in-Chief himself, Craig Glenday, arrived on the Côte d’Azur to adjudicate the event.
1660 participants in matching blue T-shirts assembled together in the shape of a saxophone. Assisted by a drone to count exactly the number of participants, at 6:15pm the Dundee-born judge proclaimed Nice champion of the world’s largest human saxophone.
We had an opportunity to spend some time with Craig, 41, and ask him about having the coolest job on earth and the Guinness World Records phenomenon.
RR: How do you explain the unwavering fascination for over nearly 60 years from a global public of all ages in both setting a world record and reading about record holders?
CG: There are many reasons, I suspect. One is that for every new generation, there’s a sense of fascination and wonder with the extremes of the world. We’re a bit like Peter Pan in that aspect – as soon as kids (and particularly boys) hit a certain age, they’re enthralled about how amazing the world is and consume all they can about it voraciously. Luckily, the Guinness World Records book has selected and curated all the world’s most amazing people, pets, natural wonders and so on, so it’s there in one easily digestible chunk. Every year, a new tranche of reader discovers the book and all of its wonders.
Also, people like seeing their name in print, so for the many thousands – indeed, millions – of people who take part in record attempts each year, it’s a chance for immortality. To see yourself in the record books! For some, it’s a life-long goal – something on the bucket list – and for others it’s a life-long career, breaking record after record. It can get addictive, it would seem!
And finally, it’s important to note that in the Google era, we’re swamped by information. Open up a browser and you’re flooded with a tsunami of data, and data of varying quality. Guinness World Records provides a filter that separates the facts from the speculation and opinion. You can trust us – I know the world’s tallest man is 8ft 3in because I measured him. But if you put the question out to the world wide web, you can get 10 answers to the same question. That’s one of the reasons we’ve survived into the digital era. That and we’re a fantastic Christmas gift for a tenner that the kid keeps coming back to, unlike those £40 video games that get played a few times then forgotten about.
RR: How many people work for GWR, and where are its offices located?
CG: There’s about 100 full-time staff in total working out of our offices in London (the HQ), New York, Tokyo, Beijing and Dubai, plus an ever-expanding pool of consultants, roving adjudicators and publishing partners. We’ve got individual country managers too, and between us we can cope with about 15 languages. We get claims from all around the world and many languages, so we need a strong, multilingual team.
RR: Why did the name change in 2000?
CG: The company was started in 1955 by the Guinness Brewery as a promotion to sell more stout, effectively, but by 2000, the new owners, Diageo, decided to sell off their non-core products (ie, anything not alcohol related). We were put up for sale and bought by Gullane Children’s Books, who owned Thomas The Tank Engine, but in the process, Diageo insisted that we could no longer be called the Guinness Book of anything, so a compromise was reached that allowed us to keep the Guinness name. It also reflected the growing scope of the business beyond the book into live events, TV shows, websites, and so on.
RR: GWR receives some 1000 record-setting applications a week and yet only 8% a year of these actually produce a world record. How do you decide which records to follow-up on? What is an example of missing criteria that would result in failure?
CG: One of the most common reasons for rejection is a lack of evidence. We don’t have to be in attendance at every attempt – not with 1000 happening every week! – so we ask for video footage, photos, independent witness statements, press clippings, log books, credit card receipts, and so on to help us validate the achievement. If one of these vital pieces of evidence is missing, we usually have no choice but to reject a claim.
There was the case of an organist who attempted the longest playing marathon and piped away on his church organ for more than a day non-stop. In the end, when he submitted his evidence, we found that the witnesses he’d chosen were his own parents. So, not independent! We had no choice but to reject his claim. (He actually then went on to petition Her Majesty The Queen, but not even she could get the decision reversed!)
We also get a lot of “record” claims that aren’t records, the most popular being “I can lick my elbow”. There’s simply no superlative involved, so these go straight into the rejection pile. If it were the most elbows licked, or the fastest elbow licking, we’d give it more consideration (but we’d still reject it, so don’t bother!).
RR: What record has failed the most times? In terms of proactive claims (that is, excluding oldest living person etc), what record has been broken the most?
CG: Mmm, that’s a tricky one. I tend to not hear about the fails, as my role is choosing which of the winning claimants make it into the book. I have been keeping a secret note of the best fails and rejects because I’d love to one day publish the best in a little pocket-sized book (our company President isn’t too keen, though!). It’s not about laughing at the fails it’s about celebrating the endless inventiveness and ingenuity of the human being – we’re amazing creatures who all do amazing things, but not everything gets the recognition. Failure is important in life, and shouldn’t be mocked but praised. He who makes no mistakes makes nothing, as the saying goes.
The most popular record – well, at least the one that breaks most frequently – is the oldest living woman. It’s consistently broken at regular intervals for obvious reasons. We also have records that are simple to attempt, particularly those at our live shows where people get the chance to attempt records, that can break many times in a day, such as fastest sock sorting and tallest LEGO tower built in 1 minute. But one of the most consistently challenged and broken record is, I think, the longest street hockey marathon… or the longest radio DJ broadcast. These two are extremely popular and are always being bettered. The DJ marathon has been broken 28 times in the 12 years I’ve been at GWR, for example.
Record-breaking goes in waves and follows trends too, so a couple of years ago, we had an incredible run on Mento-and-soda fountain records – you know, when you stick a pack of Mentos mints into a big bottle of Diet Coke (and it works best with Diet), resulting in a volcano-like explosion of froth? The mass participation record – the most people creating Mentos-and-soda fountains – used to be broken once or twice a year, and now it’s less fashionable and hasn’t been beaten since 2010. (The record to beat, if the good people of Nice are interested, is 2865 participants!)
RR: How do you monitor fake claims and people using the GWR logo?
CG: We work with lots of companies for commercial record attempts – or for staff team building exercises – but we’re at pains to stress that you can’t buy your way into the record books. We have a fairly robust – and busy! – legal department that monitors logo usage and copyright infringements, plus a commercial department that’s sensitive to companies claiming to be record-breakers and even using our logo when they’ve had no engagement with us. There’s a lot of prestige for companies with records – having that certificate up in the boardroom can add an invaluable credibility and cachet to a company – so we’re careful to ensure that such claims are genuine.
RR: Before you were EIC, you set a world record by stretching a Curly Wurly 0.9 m (3 ft) in three minutes without it snapping. What does it feel like to get an official GWR certificate, and where do you keep yours?
CG: I’m lucky enough to have experienced record breaking from both sides of the fence, and I knew before I started handing out certificates that it’s truly a special thrill to receive one…. to know that you’re the best in the world at something, even if it’s only for something as trivial as stretching a Curly Wurly. At GWR, we don’t place value judgements on record holders – all record breaking is relative to those taking part, so stretching a candy bar might be as important to me as running 100m is to Usain Bolt. I know that this might sound a bit ridiculous, but who’s to say one achievement is any more worthy or acceptable than another? Think of the Olympics – why is the triple jump any more impressive or worthy of inclusion in a world sporting event than, say, hula hooping, which – if done to extremes – can be as taxing, if not more so? Knowing that I was listed in the book alongside the likes of Olympians, Oscar winners and ocean rowers gave me a real buzz. And the certificate? Before I moved home, it had pride of place in my downstairs toilet for all my guests to see, but now it’s by my desk. It’s still thrilling to know I’ve been the best at something (even though the record’s been beaten twice …).
RR: How has GWR evolved with the times and modern technologies, and can you tell us of anything new in store for GWR (we won’t tell anyone!)?
CG: One of the reasons for our on-going success is that we adapt to the times and reflect what’s happening around us. When we launched back in 1954, you could barely make a transatlantic phone call, and now you can download the entire contents of our archives down the line in seconds to the other side of the word or even the International Space Station. Along the way, we’ve monitored records in as many new emerging topics as possible: space travel, VHS sales, digital cameras, podcasting and this year, for the first time, even selfies and twerking! We’re not a dusty old encyclopaedia – we’re a vital, vibrant recorder of the times. There’s a lot of nostalgia for the old days of The Guinness Book of Records – nostalgia ain’t what it used to be – but the truth is that very little is like it used to be in the 1950s and you have to adapt to survive.
We’re also looking at new technologies to help us bring the book alive for kids of the tablet age, such as Augmented Reality (AR), which we’re continuing to develop for the 2015 edition. Each new year brings huge advancements in this kind of digital technology, so we like to stay abreast and use it to entice kids into the book. Whatever it takes to get kids reading I’m happy to consider – whether it’s lo-tech glow in the dark ink or hi-tech augmented reality.
RR: You are extremely passionate about your job. What is the coolest connection you’ve made as GWR’s EIC?
CG: I’ve met an astonishing range of astonishing people, been to some amazing places and seen some amazing events, but the story that I still dine out on is meeting and befriending Michael Jackson. I asked him to pop into the office and meet the team, half expecting that he wouldn’t give us the time of day but, incredibly, he turned up one Tuesday afternoon and was unbelievably generous with his time and his enthusiasm about GWR. Everyone got their pictures taken and albums signed, and I got asked by Michael to present his award at the World Music Awards that year. So off I went, with my glamorous assistant – only Beyoncé Knowles! – and presented it to him in front of a global TV audience of a billion people. At one point, it was Michael, Beyoncé, a children’s choir and me on stage singing “We Are The World” – in fact, his last public performance, I think. It was insane! We stayed in touch, too, and talked about writing a book about Thriller, as well as getting his record-breaking This Is It farewell gig planned. The first I knew he died was when I started getting calls from the London press asking if I could confirm his passing. I was sad to hear the news, but grateful that I’d had the chance to hang out with him.
RR: What leads someone to writing a book like UFO Investigator’s Handbook or the Vampire Watcher’s Notebook?
CG: I love the quirky and unusual, and before my time at GWR I was editor of a magazine called The X Factor, which investigated claims of the paranormal, as well as weird science, conspiracy and UFOlogy. It was an absolute blast, and I got to meet as wide a range of fascinating people as I’ve since met at GWR – vampires, vampire hunters, UFO abductees, psychic spies (I apparently once came under psychic attack from MI6, according to a sensitive friend!), witches, Satanists, you name it. One of my sub-editors happened to be Princess Diana’s astrologer, and his publisher asked me if I’d like to write a book about my experiences. And while I don’t believe that UFOs are intelligently controlled extra-terrestrial vehicles – indeed, I try not to “believe” in anything – you can’t deny that people have these UFOlogical experiences, so I penned a guide to investigating claims, from analysing photos and understanding air traffic control to interviewing witnesses and collecting physical evidence.
Similarly with vampires – their history is fascinating and unusual, and obscured by recent popular mythology from the movies. Did you know, for example, that traditional vampires are obsessed with fishnets and must unpick the knots before they can continue in your pursue? Or that if they find some scattered seeds, they’re compelled to pick them up like some manically obsessive compulsive? You can forget your mirror too – an invention of Bram Stoker, who has a lot to answer for! Go out and buy my book – it might save your life one day!
I can think of only occasion when both of these obsessions have met head on – at the largest gathering of zombies (well, people dressed as zombies!) I was in heaven!