While Visions of 2,200-Pound Burritos Dance in His Head

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, March 1997

While Visions of 2,200-Pound Burritos Dance in His Head

Not to mention spinning kayakers, tap-dancing marathoners, and flying haggis. The Keeper of the Records for the Guinness Book explains how to make a run at immortality.
By Giles Smith

His official job title--Keeper of the Records--makes him sound "like something in a zoo," admits Clive Carpenter, a 49-year-old from West Sussex, England, who has worked for Guinness Publishing since 1976. But as chief factmonger for the annual Guinness Book of Records, Carpenter oversees a menagerie of trivial feats, bizarre undertakings, historical oddments, and assorted other grist for cocktail chatter. His workaday world includes the Frenchman who can eat two pounds of metal a day, the Chilean who gave birth to 55 children, the 2,147-pound rice pudding, the Scotsman who flung a haggis 180 feet, the Arizona woman who tap-danced 13.1 miles, and the Brit who rolled his kayak 1,000 times in 34 minutes. Worthy achievements all.

Before he assumed this pivotal role in the assembly of the annual Guinness Book, Carpenter helped research the Guinness Encyclopedia and the splendidly omniscient Guinness Book of Answers. Before that he was a geography teacher. Now he sifts through hundreds of letters each day, many claiming new records that Carpenter must verify, others suggesting new and often improbable categories for records. "To be accepted," Carpenter says of the potential feat, "it's got to be something that makes you sit up and say 'wow,' not 'oh.'"

This month, Carpenter and his colleagues will notch a formidable accomplishment of their own: transferring the Guinness archive to the Internet, where browsers will be able to peruse records that didn't make the book and witness new record attempts live, via their computers. But his cramped office in central London, where we met on a drizzly morning, hardly looks like a high-tech nerve center. It's decorated with cardboard cutouts of Bill Clinton, Marilyn Monroe, and Pamela Anderson Lee, along with perilously tall piles of cardboard boxes, one of which was open, revealing promising-sounding files labeled "Pet Longevity," "Guinea Pigs: Largest/Smallest," and of course, "Chicken Flying."

Let's start at the beginning. What makes people want to be record holders?

Usually a love of sport or dedication to a hobby. There's a desire to achieve that is inherent in almost everybody.

What are the current boom areas, records-wise?

Mass endeavors, people trying to raise money for charity. Every fifth or sixth letter from the States seems to be about groups doing line dancing. In South Africa there's a lot of interesting ladder-climbing. That's the distance you can climb in a 24-hour period, done on a team basis. Very popular, as you might expect, with fire crews. And in Britain people seem to be especially interested at the moment in plastic-duck races.

Tell us, if we wanted to get into the next edition of the Guinness Book, which records would you point us toward?

There's something everyone can try. Perhaps one can't be the fastest man on earth or the strongest. But one can make big food. Or there are those group endeavors.

Most people to jump from a hot air balloon [15] looks vulnerable...

A lot of records in those areas are undertaken by professional stuntmen and are not things we would encourage members of the public to do.

What about Terry Cole's record for carrying milk crates on his chin [29]?

John Evans and Terry Cole between them hold the most records in that sort of area. I saw John Evans balance a hundred bricks on his head the other day.

What did he look like afterward?

As if he could balance quite a lot more. He is extraordinarily calm.

Who are the most persistent attempters?

We get an awful lot of post from India from people doing extraordinary things for which there exists no category. Many of them are in the field of balancing and none of them are things we would like to draw attention to.

In the pages on gluttony in the current record book, you've radically restricted the terms on records like, say, pickled-onion consumption. You must now spear them with a cocktail stick.

All the old-style eating records, like 'most-ever sausagemeat,' are being phased out. There's a new format now: time challenges of at the most five minutes, with a real skill involved in the method of lifting the food.

What's your personal record for pickled-onion eating?

I've never tried that one. I did try the baked-bean eating and I didn't do very well. About a hundred, I think.

How do you verify a record?

For every record we need two independent references. It's not your mother-in-law or your brother; it's someone of standing in the local community. A few months ago the record for bouncing a soccer ball on the head was broken in Tbilisi. The guy who did that got the Georgian minister of sport and the president of the Georgian Football Association to witness. You can't very well argue with that.

How do you decide when to open up a new record category?

We have meetings every other week to discuss new category ideas. We had a meeting last Monday, and one of the ideas was the fastest time in which one can play Chopin's Minute Waltz. I like that one.

This isn't strictly an outdoor endeavor, but you were in London last year on the sixth of June when Dominic "Memory Man" O'Brien set a new record for card memorizing. [He memorized an entire pack in 38.29 seconds.] Describe the scene.

The concentration! There was a television crew around him, there were our people around him. The attempt was made in the elephant house at a zoo and the elephants, of course, were making a lot of noise as well. Yet somehow he managed to shut himself off.

What's your favorite record?

Whatever people can do, animals can do better. Nature is wonderful. Like the highest-flying bird, the Ruppell's vulture. It was recorded at a height of 12,609 meters over the Ivory Coast. How do we know that? Because it collided with a Boeing and the evidence was on the window when the Boeing landed. Or like the lemming, nature's most sexually precocious animal, which can reproduce at 14 days old. Whatever's wonderful about what people can do, nature can surpass every time.

You have a "Worst Disasters" section: most deaths in a bombing raid, worst case of genocide, worst deliberate dam burst, and so on. It's not all fun, is it?

The book is not a book of awards. It's a reflection of life--the highs and the lows, the good things and the bad. And there is in the book an incredible catalog of man's inhumanity to man. You can't deny what happened. It's simply a record.

And are you satisfied that the book suitably distinguishes the relative moral weights of, say, archery and attempts on the "Most Assassinations" slot?

It is merely a record of what happened, and I'm happy to say that there are far more triumphs than disasters.

The duration record for staying in a tree is 25 years and counting. Do you think that, if not for the Guinness Book, the guy might have come down by now?

I wouldn't have thought so. If one was going to spend one's life up a tree, I think one would do it regardless of whether the book was there or not.

Giles Smith is a writer living in London.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!