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As fate would have it, a "rabbit" in that epochal race played a critical role in steering the McWhirters into the world-record business. He was Chris Chataway, the world-class distance runner, who was also an Oxford man and, at the time, a junior executive at the Guinness brewery. The story of how the record book was conceived has long since become a publishing legend. Sir Hugh Beaver, Guinness' managing director, wondered during a hunting trip what the world's fastest game bird might be and was surprised to find that there was no reference work that satisfactorily answered such questions; he decided that Guinness should publish a chronicle of such "superlatives" for distribution in pubs in which its famed stout was sold (and in which a book calculated to settle arguments might be useful); Chataway recommended the twins as compilers; four frantic months later, the McWhirters produced a book admirably suited, as Guinness' board chairman, Lord Iveagh, phrased it in his foreword, to "turn heat into light"; finally, what was supposed to be a one-shot venture to promote beer became a perennial bestseller.
The book's success—and the McWhirters' flamboyance in promoting it—made the twins celebrities in England. They also attracted attention as television sports commentators, confounding viewers on one memorable occasion by appearing simultaneously on different channels. And they became conspicuous as vigilantes of the fight, inveighing at every opportunity against big unions, big government, the Soviet Union and what they saw as the evils of permissiveness. They believed in unbridled competition and the need for authority, which in a sense is what they were promoting with their record book. Consistent though this may have been, the British public had trouble taking the McWhirters seriously, regarding them as sporting, square, patriotic and just a bit cranky. Even a close friend says, "Norris and Ross always reminded me of clowns who wanted to play Hamlet. They were amateurs who blundered into a horrible situation."
One of the twins' first political ventures occurred in the late '50s when they mischievously disrupted a ban-the-bomb rally by using a car with a loudspeaker on top to direct unsuspecting marchers into a field. In 1964 they ran for Parliament in different districts, each losing but each receiving, by a fine coincidence, 19,000-odd votes. Eventually the brothers worked out an arrangement whereby Norris concentrated a bit more on the Guinness book while Ross speechified and pamphleteered in behalf of the causes in which they both believed. Ross also fought a series of quixotic legal battles, researching them in the evenings, sometimes falling asleep at the dining-room table with law books piled high around him. One day Ross would be trying to block television from showing a film about Andy Warhol that he considered obscene; the next, he would be seeking an injunction against a ferry strike. In 1975, fatefully, he announced plans to post rewards for the capture of those responsible for the Belfast-style terrorism then plaguing London.
For his pains Ross himself became a victim of that terrorism. On Nov. 27 at 6:45 p.m., he opened the door of his large mock-Tudor house to admit his wife, Rosemary, who had just driven up in her Ford Granada. Two men stepped out of the bushes and opened fire with handguns, hitting the 50-year-old McWhirter in the head and stomach. The scene of the shooting was less than a mile from the Guinness Superlatives offices, and late-working employees heard the ambulance go by, never dreaming that a dying Ross McWhirter was inside. The next morning the Daily Mail headlined I.R.A. MURDER BOOK OF RECORDS MAN. (Fifteen months later, four I.R.A. members were convicted and imprisoned for a wave of bombings and the murders of six people, including Ross McWhirter.)
Although Ross was more visibly involved in politics, longtime friends, such as Chataway, know better than to downplay Norris McWhirter's role. After helping Bannister breach four minutes, Chataway himself broke a world record—for the 5,000 meters—the same year. He eventually left Guinness and served for 15 years as a Conservative member of Parliament before quitting to become an investment banker. A chesty little fellow with a Kennedyesque shock of reddish hair, Chataway says, "I don't think Norris will mind my saying that he was the senior partner of the two. He was a better sprinter than Ross, and I've always felt he was a little better in everything. My impression is that Ross tended to follow."
After his brother's death, Norris McWhirter wrote a book, Ross: The Story of a Shared Life, in which he describes the wrenching moment when he identified the body at the mortuary: "The experience of seeing, lifeless, a person who is genetically the same person as yourself has an unreality. There is you." He also wrote: "I felt that I was about to be reborn—not as half a person but as a double person."
Having taken the baton from his slain brother, the old Oxford anchor man has been running with it ever since. Today, Norris says he is too busy putting out the Guinness book to work on the political causes dear to Ross and himself, though he rejects the notion there was anything inconsequential about those causes. He says, "To take action on one's principles is a very, very rare thing, and that's what Ross was doing. He believed that the alternative to the rule of law was the rule of the jungle. He was absolutely doing the right thing."
The brewmasters at Arthur Guinness, Son & Co., Ltd. find it slightly awkward that their record book has come to enjoy great popularity among children. Rather than appear to be encouraging the young to imbibe, they have been slow to approve licensing in Great Britain of the kind of Guinness-related toys and promotions that are flourishing in the U.S. But the diversified, $1 billion-a-year company otherwise tends to keep hands off Guinness Superlatives, a taut operation that produces $600,000 in annual profits on sales of $4 million. As one brewery executive puts it, "We just let Norris kind of bash away on his own."
McWhirter bashes away in an office in which every available surface, even the floor, is piled high with papers. The Guinness book generates 20,000 letters a year, mostly submissions for new records and challenges of existing ones, and while McWhirter has plenty of help in answering them, he says with a proprietary air, "I get the tough ones." He corresponds with experts in various fields and plows through heaps of magazines and nonfiction books in an effort to keep abreast. "You develop a technique in reading so that words like longest, shortest, biggest and other 'ests' jump out at you," he says.
McWhirter is painstaking about approving records, insisting on corroboration by eyewitnesses, newspaper clippings and photographs. He recalls with a shudder the time a young Englishman wrote in claiming to have broken the record for standing 12-sided English three-penny pieces, one on top of another, on their edges. "The record was 11 and this chap said he had stacked 13," McWhirter relates. "He even included a photograph, but I didn't like the looks of it, so I phoned him and started asking questions. He finally said, 'All right, I'll tell you how I did it.' I said, 'Good, that's exactly what I want to know.' He had used a powerful adhesive and attached a chair, table and carpet to the ceiling. Then he suspended the coins from the table. He had photographed it all and simply turned the picture upside down."