Norris McWhirter appeared to be sporting a black monocle.
"Actually, this is the smallest record in the world -- 1 3/8 inches in diameter," he said, removing the phonographic disc from his eye. "It plays 'God Save the King,' and was part of a doll house collection given to Queen Mary, Elizabeth's grandmother, in 1925."
After one last look, McWhirter placed the tiny disc on a table next to a $6,000 golf shoe that features rubytipped gold cleats, diamond insignias and mink lining.
On the face of it, this urbane, impeccably dressed Englishman would appear to be one wild and crazy guy. After all, who travels with $6,000 golf shoes, Hobbit-sized records and a copy of the most boring book in the world (a French edition containing pi computed to 1 million decimal places)?
In fact, McWhirter is about as wild and crazy as any product of Oxford who oversees an empire that brings him somewhere around a billion dollars a year. Norris McWhirter is Mr. Guinness Book of World Records.
He has been sobered, too, by the death in 1975 of his twin brother, Ross, who was killed by an IRA gunman. An outspoken conservative, Ross had organized a campaign to raise $100,000 toward the capture of IRA bombers operating in Britain when he was shot.
He also is living proof that an association with newspapers can be profitable. As the son of a man who edited, at one time or another, three different papers on Fleet Street, he and Ross grew up surrounded by facts and figures.
"We must have had 100 newspapers, plus countless magazine and books, coming in at home every week," he said. "We began organizing the data as children do, and eventually concentrated on the extremes -- the steel brackets around the subjects."
But it took Sir Hugh Beaver, the man responsible for Britain's Clean Air Act and -- more important to this story -- the director of the Guinness brewery in 1954, to put the McWhirter trivia to a profitable use.
Sir Hugh apparently had the bad luck to miss an agile golden plover while hunting one day in Ireland. Convinced that only the fastest bird in the world could have eluded his buckshot, he immediately sought to learn if, in fact, the bird was that fast.
An employe of his, Christopher Chataway, knew of two fellos Olympic-class runners from Oxford -- the McWhirters -- who filled their lives with such useless information. Chataway arranged a meeting soon afterward where Sir Hugh was stricken to learn from the McWhirters that while the plover reached 62 miles per hour in flight, it was left in the dust of the spur wing goose, which had been clocked at 88 miles per hour.
But Sir Hugh was so taken with the other bizarre data spewed forth by the McWhirter twins that he ordered them to compile a book of such records as a promotional gimmick for Guinness beer.
Now, 24 years later, the "Guinness Book of World Records" has sold 37 million copies. There have been 104 editions in 21 languages. As the spur wing goose did to the golden plover, it left the largest fictional best-seller in history, "The Valley of the Dolls," in the dust a long time ago.
In all modesty, Norris believes that he has reduced the level of carnage in the world, or at least in Britain's 84,000 pubs.
"Yes, I think that I have seved a lot of blood," he mused. "You know how arguments in pubs often get settled. But since 1955, there has been a peaceful way of settling arguments about the biggest and the oldest and things like that."
Today, the breadth of McWhirter's empire is actonishing -- and growing No longer limited to the record book itself, his domain now includes a a game by Parker Brothers, jigsaw puzzles, specially inscribed Dixie cups, exhibitions, television and radio shows, and a newspaper column. A possible movie is being discussed, and new editions come out this year in Chinese, Greek, Turkish and Indonesian. Records, it seems, are very, very big business.
"America is much more concerned with records than any other country," he explained recently at his St. Regis hotel suite. "I'd say that about two-thirds of the 15,000 entries in the book are American."
California, said McWhirter, is the most record-conscious state in the country.
There already are five Guinness exhibition halls, located at the Empire State Building in New York City, Niagara Falls, Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri, and Gatlinburg in Tennessee. Two more are planned in San Francisco and Boston.
It was at the Empire State Building exhibition hall recently that Norris witnessed and judged an assault on the current world bubblegum-blowing record by a group of youngsters. Sponsored by Bubble-Yum Gum, the event failed to produce a new record but did include a 9 1/2-inch bubble (measured by calipers) and some press coverage.
If McWhirter's schedule mandates such promotional tours occasionally, he doesnht seem to mind. He reminds himself that things could be a lot worse.
"I have nothing to do with the business side," he said. "I concentrate on the editorial stuff. We have a marvelous man who is an accountant to run the other part of it. The record book itself employs only 34 people."
"The editorial stuff" includes such things as compiling a list of every tupe of "ologist" in the world: McWhirter has found 460 so far. "I squeeze it out like toothpaste," he said.
It also includes debunking the myth that an American named Charlie Smith is the oldest man in the world.
"Absolute nonesense," McWhirter snorted. "Every year, Charlie Smith claims to be the oldest. I think he says he is 138 now. He is, in fact, 104."
McWhirter than produced a photograph of another relic who, he says, is close to the real thing.
"He'll be the oldest if he lives until May 22," McWhirter said. "Then he'll be 11o and 225 days."
Then there are the old friends, the people who correspond regularly with McWhirter about the bizarre and often the flagrantly incredible.
"There's old Roy Sullivan. The poor man has been hit by lightning seven times," McWhirter said. "He has become a regular with us. He even donated one of his hats to one of our exhibits. It was burned right through."
The issue of verification of records has been from its beginning as crucial to the integrity of the "Guinness Book of World Records" as it is today to the implementation of the SALT treaty.
"You need a basic sense of incredulity," he explained. "The press is very valuable in making independent checks. We also have staffs in the different languages who are responsible for their material. In Australia, for example, where records are very big, there's formal record bureau."
In one sense, McWhirter is like the man who owns a lucrative piece of real estate; all he has to do is clip his coupons. Yet he bridles at the suggestion that the has nothing left to do.
"About a quarter of the entries each year are new," he said. "There are always new things to do. If I get bored with this, I'd get bored with anything."
Norris McWhirter believes there's no such thing as useless information. The faxt that in 1973 Norman Johnson carved up a cucumber to the tune of 20 slices an inch does matter.