Interview: Craig Glenday, editor of the book of Guinness World Records

Craig Glenday with record holders Burnaby Q Orbax and Sweet Pepper Klopek
Craig Glenday with record holders Burnaby Q Orbax and Sweet Pepper Klopek
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EXPERT Curly-Wurly stretcher, Dundonian and the editor of the book of Guinness World Records, Craig Glenday has his ideal job – hunting down, checking and recording the strangest facts on the planet, writes Dani Garavelli

In a large glass cabinet in Craig Glenday’s office in London is a insignificant-looking object which could be mistaken for a cowpat, but is, in fact, the world’s oldest vomit. “It dates back 160 million years – it’s a pile of ichthyosaur sick,” enthuses Glenday, the 39-year-old from Dundee for whom such curiosities are both an endless source of fascination and his income stream. Glenday is the editor-in-chief of the Guinness World Records book – a job which he, as chronicler of our planet’s extremes, is in a unique position to rule “the best in the world”. And his display unit – which also features a pair of shoes worn by the man with the world’s largest feet (size 30) and a signed copy of the world’s best-selling album Michael Jackson’s Thriller – is a paean to the weird and wonderful, gross and uplifting universe he inhabits.

An aficionado of the bizarre, Glenday would be an asset at any dinner party. Want to know about the longest ever fingernails, the biggest biceps or the hairiest family? He can provide the facts and figures off the top of his head and throw in a juicy anecdote for good measure.

Indeed so in tune is Glenday with the madcap characters with whom he consorts, he once found himself answering a pub quiz question about himself. When the quizmaster asked: “How long can a Curly Wurly be stretched?” he was the only one who got it right. As well he might. Because at that point he was the Curly-Wurly stretching champion (the answer was 3ft, although it’s been broken several times since then).

It’s this unusual blend of geekery and wackiness that makes Glenday the perfect candidate for his role. A former baker, theatre pit drummer, medical photographer and church organist, he says: “I never had any career goals – I just wanted to experience as many fun things as possible. This job is so good for that. It’s so random. I can be having breakfast with dwarves and lunch with astronauts.” Just how random, Glenday discovered one day when a man approached him as he was walking down the street and started kicking his own head. “He recognised me and wanted to show me what he could do. He did get into the book [the actual record being the number of kicks recorded in a minute] because kicking yourself in the head is actually quite a feat of athleticism.”

As Glenday launches the 57th edition of the book, he is reflecting on a year which has seen him prove the Goliath Birdeater is the world’s biggest spider, watch French urban climber Alain Robert scale the 317m Torch Doha Hotel in Qatar and preside over a purr-off between three pretenders for the title of the world’s loudest cat. The winner was Smokey who, at 92 decibels, is claimed to be noisier than a Boeing 747.

The book – a staple Christmas present for all fact-hungry boys – contains 3,000 new and updated records including the world’s oldest gymnast, Johanna Quas, 86, from Germany, and the longest career as a male TV entertainer, held by Bruce Forsyth, who, at 84, has clocked up 72 years in the business.

Most excitingly, it contains a new feature involving cutting-edge technology, augmented reality. After downloading a free app, the reader will be able to hold their smartphone over certain images and see them “come alive”.

“It’s amazing,” says Glenday. “For the first time, you will be able to pilot the world’s smallest helicopter across your bedroom or stroke the world’s smallest dog; the great white shark will seem to lunge out of the page and you will be able to view the world’s shortest man from every angle.”

Keeping the book up to date is extremely important to Glenday, who wants to inspire reluctant readers. “For some children this will be the only book they look at all year. So we do everything we can to trick them into opening it – and then they get hooked.”

Glenday is also nervously awaiting the start of a two-part ITV documentary which, for the first time, gives a behind the scenes look at how the book is put together. This is no mean feat, given the office receives 50,000 call-ins a year and only 5 per cent of them make the cut.

“We have these fantastic meetings where we debate questions such as, ‘What should a Smurf wear?’ or ‘Do we accept stuff like riding a horse in full armour?’

“We had a great one this year, which was a man [Herbert Chavez] who had surgically enhanced himself to look like Superman. In the end we decided the greatest transformation to look like a superhero was too random, but he got in for having the largest collection of Superman memorabilia.”

Among other things, the documentary follows Glenday as he flies to Nepal to establish whether Chandra Bahadur Dangi is the world’s shortest man. Living in the remote village of Rhimkola – 250 miles from the Kathmandu – the 72-year-old had never heard of the book. But a woodcutter passing through spotted him and realised he might be a contender for the title. After discussions with village elders, Dangi travelled to the capital to meet Glenday and doctors who measured him three times in one day before ruling that, at just 54.6cm, he was not only the world’s shortest living man, but the shortest adult ever recorded.

Glenday is used to accusations that parading those who are physically deformed in this way smacks of a Victorian freak show, but is quick to point out that no-one is forced to appear in the book, and that doing so often reaps them benefits.

“There is no cash award, but [Chandra Bahadur Dangi] for example, he has already been given gifts, had money put in his hand, he is enjoying lots of experiences which would not otherwise have been open to him and he has been given free medical treatment for the first time in his life.”

There are also benefits for society. “What often happens is that because these cases are so extreme the medical community wants to study them.” Ethics do play a role in deciding what categories should be included (although not as great a role as you might suppose). The broad rule of thumb seems to be that it’s OK to harm yourself in your pursuit of glory, but not others. Hence the book includes the record for the heaviest woman, but not the world’s heaviest cat (as that might encourage over- feeding).

Records such as the world’s longest pee are rejected on taste grounds, however the world’s most prolific serial killer and the heaviest weight lifted with the eyelid appear to be fair game.

“We have committed ourselves to collate and curate the world’s extremes,” Glenday says. “Some of it is unsavoury, some of it’s spectacular, some of it is sad, some of it is happy, it’s a snapshot of they world as it is. Glenday points out people were breaking records long before The Guinness Book of Records was first published [Everest was conquered two years before the first edition] and that wanting to challenge ourselves to ever greater feats of endurance is part of human nature.

As evidence he cites Ashrita Furman – the man who holds the record for setting records. Over the course of his life, he has set 424 including the fastest mile hula-hooping with a milk bottle on his head (13 minutes 51 seconds) and the longest distance balancing a pool cue on one finger (seven miles, 220ft).

What sets Furman apart from his counterparts is the scientific rigour he applies to each challenge. Having decided to push an orange a mile with his nose, he set about finding the roundest, hardest species of orange and the smoothest stretch of ground (he eventually hired a mile of the marble concourse at JFK airport).

“It has become part of his lifestyle – it’s sort of spiritual for him – a means of him testing himself, pushing himself to the limit and experiencing both pain and joy.” And for Glenday, that sums up what breaking records is all about.

• Guinness World Records 2013 is out now and the two-part ITV documentary Inside Guinness World Records will be broadcast later this year.