When the spirit moves him, McWhirter also spices his book with his own droll sense of humor. The reference to millihelens is but one example. Readers might also enjoy the report that a 19th-century German named Johann Thieme dug a world-record 23,311 graves before, "in 1826, his understudy dug his grave." Or that Rusty Skuse qualifies as the world's most tattooed lady, having been decorated to "within 15% of totality" by her husband; according to Guinness, the husband explained that he "always had designs on her."
One recent evening McWhirter drove to a large house in London's Winchmore Hill district and parked in front. He and his brother Ross grew up in the house, and it had been a happy, if formidable, place, boasting seven bedrooms, a circular driveway and a 210-pound laundress. But now, cast in evening shadows and occupied by strangers, it was dark and brooding. Looking at it, McWhirter said that until both of them took wives in 1957 (Ross at 31, Norris several months later at 32), they always roomed together.
"In a house with seven bedrooms?"
McWhirter seemed startled by the question. After a pause, he said, "Why we could have had separate rooms.... I guess it just never occurred to us."
The McWhirters were born on August 12, 1925, Norris at 7:40 p.m. and Ross 20 minutes later. Their father was William Allan McWhirter, a prominent Scottish-born editor of a London newspaper, who had an abiding faith in the virtues of fair play and legible handwriting. Both brothers were fascinated with what the British call facts 'n' figgers, and they also shared an interest in sports. As with many identical twins, their relationship seemed to be telepathic at times. They often communicated with little more than grunts and gestures, and were able to finish one another's sentences. When one of them put down an object, the other knew where it was. Their tastes were so similar that Ross, who disliked coffee, always puzzled over the fact that Norris enjoyed an occasional cup. Until their marriages—each was the other's best man—their only separation occurred when they served in the Royal Navy in World War II. Norris was detailed to a minesweeper in Singapore, Ross to one in the Mediterranean. The vessels made their separate ways to Valletta, Malta—where they collided.
The McWhirters later attended Oxford, where both were sprinters on the track team. Norris was faster; he anchored a British championship 440-yard-relay team—on which Ross ran the third leg. Norris also competed abroad on national teams. After Oxford, having moved back into their parents' house, Norris worked as a free-lance sportswriter while Ross reported on rugby and tennis for The Star. The brothers also launched a "fact service" for advertisers and for newspapers, yearbooks and encyclopedias and put out a monthly track magazine. Athletics World.
To all who knew them, the McWhirters were simply "the twins," a pair of endearing, if slightly fogyish, look-alikes who were forever spouting odd bits of information. Neil Allen, their first editorial assistant and now a well-known sportswriter for the Evening Standard, says, "Norris and Ross weren't the hard-drinking, loud-shouting Fleet Street types. They didn't smoke, hardly drank, and living at home, they seemed cut off a bit from real life. I remember one of them being surprised to learn that most people in Britain had mortgages. But they had very lucid minds, and I always knew I was with special people. I used to go home at night stimulated."
In view of their later involvement with the Guinness book, it seems almost too perfect that the McWhirters were on hand when their friend and fellow Oxonian, Roger Bannister, arrived at the black-cinder Iffley Road track in Oxford on May 6, 1954, to break the four-minute barrier in the mile—still one of the most celebrated of all world records. The McWhirters were covering the event for Athletics World and Norris was also the public-address announcer. The night before the race, anticipating that Bannister would succeed, Norris in his bathtub practiced what he called a "crescendo-suspense" announcement.
The McWhirters knew a lot even then about packaging world records. After the race, Norris teasingly intoned over the loudspeakers: "Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event number nine, the one mile. First, number 41, R. G. Bannister, of the Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton Colleges, with a time which is a new meeting and track record, and which, subject to ratification, will be a new English native, British national, British all-comers, European, British Empire and world record. The time was three...."
The rest of the 3:59.4 clocking was lost in cheers.