Michael Thorn talks to Russell Ash, the man behind the new child-friendly version of 'Whitaker's Almanack'
Whitaker's World Of Facts By Russell Ash AC Black pound;19.99 www.Whitakersworld.com
Whitaker's Almanack has been published annually since 1868, but we have waited until this year for the first child-friendly version. Whitaker's World of Facts doesn't, like the more senior publication it is modelled on, pretend that it can subsume today's world into one volume, but it is as comprehensive a source of information as you could wish for. It is every fact-fiend's dream come true, a paradise of lists, charts and economically written blocks of illustrated information, designed to appeal to both older key stage 2 and KS3 readers.
Its creator Russell Ash is best known as the author of The Top Ten Of Everything - an annually updated book of lists published by Dorling Kindersley. He recently took over from Norris McWhirter as Whitaker's geographical statistician. Until then he was not involved with the almanack, other than using it in his work. He owns an almost complete set, shelved alongside the other 10,000 volumes in his home library in Lewes, East Sussex.
The library has recently won an architectural award. I could see why, as I was shown down from the gallery to the work station below. "It's taken a lifetime to get to truly having a room of my own, rather than a bedroom or a spare room in the house," Russell tells me.
After a false start as an aviation insurance broker, he started life in the books world as a picture researcher, working on a part work called Man, Myth And Magic - a weekly encyclopedia of the supernatural. "Gradually, as I was acquiring pictures for books," he explains, "editors would ask me to write the captions and then they said: 'Well, if you're writing the captions, you may as well write some of the text,' so it expanded to writing whole books."
Russell attributes his ability to organise and categorise information to his mother's influence. "Whenever she saw a film she would go home and write her own critique of it and give it star ratings. And my dad was a bookbinder, so I suppose I've got books in the blood."
While working as an editor at Weidenfeld Nicolson, Russell became frustrated at seeing good ideas of his own being given to other writers to develop. "I was in America and somebody gave me a book called The Book of Texas Lists, which was a book of wacky facts about Texas, famous people who were shot in Texas, unusual street names, that kind of thing. I thought I could do a similar thing for London, so I left Weidenfeld and did a book of London lists, which came out as The Londoner's Almanac, in 1985. Then I thought, I don't know why I'm confining this to London, I could just as easily do the world."
The first edition of The Top 10 Of Everything came out in 1990 and since then it has been the mainstay and the main focus of Russell's writing life.
The ongoing collection and updating of information and data require the services of a full-time assistant and a sophisticated bespoke database. So if any author was qualified to produce a child-friendly Whitaker's it was Russell. In fact, when AC Black acquired Whitaker's just over two years ago, he suggested the project. "It's an annexe to Whitaker's, a relation to Whitaker's. The country information is common to both, but apart from that there's nothing that links the two. It's been built from the ground up, according to a plan evolved between me and the editors of what we thought would appeal to children. A mixture of strange and important facts and lists, and what I used to think of as general knowledge, but seems to be called trivia these days."
Russell is proud of the fact that the book was worked on right up to the line. "We haven't got Lance Armstrong winning seven Tours de France, but we were adding and changing right up to the last minute. We managed to get a few "stop press" items in: the death of the Pope and Ellen MacArthur's round-the-world voyage."
The front cover carries the headline "Every Subject on Earth!" but Russell is less bullish about comprehensiveness. "I hope that what we've provided isn't too skimpy, but it almost deliberately presents a sort of tip of an iceberg, so that people, kids particularly, and teachers are encouraged to go off and find out more. It's a starting-off point - it doesn't set out to be a comprehensive reference book."
This is not a nerdish compendium of trivia, and only some of the information is of a type likely to help contestants in pub quizzes.
However, alongside heavy-duty statistics, such as lists of top oil and gas producers, the book also presents the precise dates on which famous comic-strip characters first appeared, with the justified implication that these are historically important pieces of information and valuable assets to a store of general knowledge.