It was a raw and
windy day in the autumn of 1954. A party of sportsmen waited in skillfully
built blinds near the estuary of the Slaney River, close to Wexford on the
southeast tip of the Irish coast. Among them was Sir Hugh Beaver, Knight
Commander Order of the British Empire, Managing Director of Arthur Guinness,
Son & Co. Ltd., scientist and asker of questions. The estuary is famous for
its wild-fowling, and on this afternoon large numbers of geese and ducks had
been moving about, with Sir Hugh bagging his share. But there was one kind of
bird that Sir Hugh did not hit. Without warning, as is their way, a small flock
of golden plover came streaking past the blind, to be gone almost before they
had come. Sir Hugh fired both barrels, to no purpose. His vanity was not
piqued, but his curiosity was.
That evening, as
the hunters warmed themselves by their host's convivial fire and clutched the
necessary whiskey and sodas, they reviewed the day's events.
"By the way,
Sir Hugh, did you get any of those plover?" the host asked.
No, beyond me, I'm afraid. My goodness, they do move. Doing a hundred, I should
not as fast as a driven grouse downwind?" suggested someone else.
"Oh, yes, far
faster. Must be the fastest game bird we've got. In fact, it would just be a
matter of luck...."
teal, though? They can...."
developed nicely and to no immediate resolution, as is the case with most such
sporting discussions. But this one was going to have a remarkable result. There
was no means of checking on the flight speed of birds that night, so Sir Hugh
had to let the matter wait until he returned to London. There he consulted
encyclopedias and various well-regarded reference books. He searched under
Ornithology, Birds, Speed, Velocity, Shooting and other likely headings, but
there was no precise mention of bird speeds. It then occurred to him that it
was monstrous that you could pay $400 or so for a 24-volume encyclopedia and
not have it tell you a simple thing like the speed of the fastest game bird.
Why isn't there such a book? thought Sir Hugh, a book telling people about the
fastest, longest, tallest, driest, hardest anything: a book of records.
thereafter Sir Hugh had a word with one of his young Guinness executives whom
he knew to be of a sporting turn of mind. "Chris, where on earth d'you find
out things like this? Top speeds, records and so on?" Christopher Chataway,
who at that very time held the world 5,000-meter record, admitted he did not
know. There should be such a book, said Sir Hugh, and there was no reason why
Guinness should not publish it. He asked Chataway if he knew anybody who could
put such a book together, and this time Chataway had an answer: the McWhirter
twins. Chataway knew the twins as a pair of track fanatics who put out a
magazine called Athletics World in addition to running a fact-finding
Now, it is a
recognized nonfact of human nature that nine-tenths of the world's literate
population is insensitive to accuracy, oblivious to the niceties of precise
speaking and cares little if a race has been won in 47 seconds, 46.3 seconds,
or even, praise be, in 46 flat. The remainder, their opposites, care intensely.
They will spend hours verifying unimportant details; they cut short interesting
discussions by Looking It Up in books of reference; they cite numbers from
charts and lists and tables while the wine gets warm and the souffl� gets cold.
It is to this school that Norris and Ross McWhirter emphatically belong.