Who, or Why, or Which, or What...?
A Global Gazetteer of the Instructive and Strange
Hardback : 29 Sep 2011
WHO…was the only modern leader to return fire during an assassination attempt?
WHY…is kissing on trains banned in France?
WHICH…island used to be home to a crocodile that jumped on its prey from trees?
WHAT…was the first song to be sung in Outer Space?
With a reasonable claim to be the most useful book ever written, John Oldale's Who, or Why, or Which, or What…? is a cornucopia of history, travel, politics, wildlife, language - indeed, a celebration of everything which makes this planet so fascinating.
With an entry for every country, from the impenetrably immense (China) to the most completely marginal (San Marino - although it has stiff competition), this beautifully illustrated book is jammed with the most peculiar, fascinating and surprising information.
Whether you are interested in man-eating catfishes, the use of wizards to influence archery contests or the location of the Land of Hum, this is the book for you.
Customer Review: 03 January 2012
'Fantastic book, read whilst in my favourite place, Kenya and one which kept my thirst for all things interesting and variable about the world fully satisfied. One point is around the, in my view inconsistent dates of the worlds oldest universities on page 133 and 182. Great work John and I look forward to reading your next work.'» Submit a review
When writing a book about everything in the world, how did you decide which things to leave out?
This was perhaps the hardest part of writing the book. Essentially, the bigger the country the more there is to say. Quite obviously, large and important countries like the US, China, France and so on - and, of course, the UK itself - give enough material to fill many volumes each, and yet to keep the book to manageable proportions I had to cut things down to six or seven pages at most. After assembling my material, I pre-qualified stories by checking that they were entertaining, astonishing or informative – and ideally all three. After that, it was a question of trying to paint a picture of the country in question that I felt was balanced and that reflected the impressions that a visitor might expect to come away with. For India, for example, I clearly had to include something about the food – there’s a section devoted to chili strengths (and how to put out the fire). As it’s a deeply spiritual place, I also wanted quite a lot about religion – as well as the country’s iron devotion to the cow (to the point of drinking cow ‘nectar’ i.e. urine as a tonic). Finally, other pieces scattered around were intended to capture India’s amazing diversity, colour and chaos, as well as the dust and heat and maddening bureaucracy.
One further consideration was the desire to achieve a good visual display. For each page, I would try to build a picture in my head before putting pen to paper. Sometimes that image might be a fairly conventional mix of text and illustrations. But, other times, I would start with a strong theme and work around that. Liberia is a case in point. The country has been through so much, I wanted some way of showing how it has been torn apart by impossibly ugly violence and civil war. The quote I chose for the head of a page used the words of an ordinary Liberian who affirmed his faith in democracy despite previously having had his arm hacked off with a machete in an attempt to prevent him from voting. (Rebels offered the people they mutilated a choice between ‘long sleeves’ and ‘short sleeves’ – amputation at the wrist or elbow.) But to reinforce this, I then used a graphic to divide the page down the middle. I set one half of the text horizontally as normal. The remainder, however, I positioned to run diagonally, forcing the reader to turn the book round – and hopefully reflect for a moment – before reading it.
Which period in history would you most like to live in, where, and why?
My incredibly dull answer is now and here (in the West). Boring as it may be, there has never been any other time or place in history in which so many people have lived such predictably safe and comfortable lives under, in the main, fair laws and reasonable rulers. I’m afraid I’m a huge fan of democracy, meritocracy and non-discrimination, and this combination has only been practiced in a large way since the late 20th century and, even then, only in a select bunch of countries spearheaded by Western Europe and the US. One of the things that writing this book has vividly brought home to me is that life in the vast majority of epochs and societies really was nasty, brutish and short. And since your question didn’t give any indication of whether I would live as an emperor or a slave (the latter, of course, being numerically far more likely), I prefer not to take my chances.
Answering the slightly different question of where and when I would like to visit, then - the future aside - I think my answer would have to be Imperial Rome during the reign of philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius. The Imperium was at its apogee and had not yet begun its centuries’ long plunge into madness, strife and disintegration. Its glories were still fresh, its culture still vigorous and its polity not yet wholly rotten. I would be fascinated to see how daily life was led in a multi-ethnic city filled with tower blocks, fast-food joints and traffic jams twice as large as Manchester is today, yet which lay almost as deep in the remote past for those fighting the Battle of Hastings as that struggle is to us now. More to the point, I imagine that scarcely any of those alive then would have believed it possible that their entire civilisation was about to come crashing down and not recover fully for more than a millennium – perhaps a salutary thought for us too.
Where does your impulse to write about everything in the world come from?
There are two strands. First, I have an unfortunate inclination towards the didactic. Possibly naively, I believe it would be ‘a good thing’ if people knew a little bit about the wider world and that, if only they did, relations both at the inter-personal level and in the conduct of grand affairs of state could take place in a far more rational and enlightened way. Most of the conventional mass media are hopelessly parochial and, when it comes to many other countries, only give coverage if we are bombing them, being asked to donate to save them from earthquakes/famines etc. or are being in our turn bombed by some rogue terrorist hailing from there. So in my humble way I felt I wanted to step up and do what I could to fill the breach. And since what background coverage of international affairs there is usually falls squarely into the worthy but mind-numbingly dull category, I decided to try to sweeten the pill by compiling what I hope is a genuinely entertaining assemblage of bizarre information that still manages at the same time to be informative. My second impulse is more selfish. I have travelled the world for over a quarter of a century now and, as time went by, I had come increasingly to feel that the whole enterprise was unacceptably narcissistic unless I could find something creative to do with the experiences and insights I had been privileged enough to enjoy. Since foisting holiday snaps on friends back home is rightly an express ticket to social pariahdom, I felt that writing this book would be the answer.
What was the most unexpectedly colourful country that you wrote about?
After finishing each chapter,there was scarcely a single country I didn’t want to get on the next plane to- San Marino, of course, being the obvious exception. But I think the greatest surprise came with West Africa. It’s just about the only part of the world I’ve never travelled in and so I needed to do quite a lot of extra research to compensate. While I was familiar enough with the region’s colonial and modern history, I knew much less about the pre-colonial era. What I learnt was fascinating. To take Mali as an example, in the 16th century, at a time when England’s largest university, Oxford, mustered 1,500 students, Timbuktu University had 25,000 enrolled and its library contained 700,000 volumes. The Empire was so rich citizens used bags of gold dust for everyday currency (gold was cheaper than table salt) and sent trade caravans of up to 12,000 camels at a time across the Sahara to the Mediterranean. At the peak of his power, the Emperor of Mali ruled over one person in every ten worldwide (and used armies of West European slaves to till his fields).
How did you deal with the changing number of countries while you wrote?
There was only one new country (South Sudan) that appeared in the two years it took me to write the book. Perhaps a more challenging issue was deciding where to draw the line in calling somewhere a country. UN membership is a good starting point, but Taiwan is excluded for political reasons and the Vatican chooses not to join, and both are conventionally treated as independent nations. I perhaps also exhibited a pro-Western bias by including partially recognised Kosovo while excluding Russian-backed South Ossetia and Abkhazia. For good measure, I also wrote round-up entries for most of the world’s remaining colonies (grouped under Britain, France and the US), gave a chapter to the Chinese ‘Special Administrative Regions’ of Hong Kong and Macao, and upgraded the nominally Danish territories of Greenland and the Faroe Islands to full countries since they both enjoy home-rule.
What’s the strangest food you’ve ever eaten?
I’m not into macho mastication. If something sounds disgusting, it probably is. And if a local delicacy has stayed firmly local, there’s probably a very good reason. So anything I’ve eaten that’s bizarre has been by accident and probably largely unknown to me. Travelling through Eastern Europe on a tight budget during the Communist era meant lots of off-white offal, the precise details of which remained mercifully obscure. Then there was the time I was sharing a truck (not entirely willingly) with a platoon of Turkish troops in Kurdistan - at mess time, the most foul-smelling meat-gloop appeared, to be eaten communally out of the cooking pot, and it seemed sensible not to demur. I also remember one meal in Calcutta where a huge cockroach fell directly into my bowl from a ventilation duct overhead. (I didn’t eat the cockroach, but I did finish my curry.) However, when it comes to odd things that I’ve eaten knowingly, the strangest is probably the breakfast I ordered at a Buddhist monastery shortly after arriving in Korea. Not having a clue what the monk was offering me, I simply nodded. When the meal came, it was a lacquer tray exquisitely divided into 37 tiny compartments each containing a different sort of fungus. However, since almost all of them were delicious, I don’t think this really counts.
What is the one fact in the book that you wish was false?
Sadly, there are very many facts in the book that I wish were false. On the basis that those already dead can’t suffer further, one of the most shocking contemporary facts for me is that one in five Mauritanians is a slave. How can this be? Another truly depressing snippet is that the roof of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is falling in because for years now the Catholic and Orthodox priests who run it have been unable to agree on a plan for repairs. I don’t care overmuch about the church - I’ve been there, it’s just a big old stone barn - but the squabble speaks volumes about religion. (As an aside, an argument about how to mark the alleged exact spot within the same church where Jesus was born was the proximate cause of the Crimean War.) However, when it comes to ‘lord help us’ moments, I think the revelation that in the 1990s the US military sought £5 million development funding for a ‘gay’ bomb is hard to beat. (The idea, apparently, was to make enemy combatants so irresistibly attractive to each other they would be too busy to fight. The same genius lab came up with ideas for halitosis and flatulence bombs as well.)
Please tell us about some of the extraordinary but unverifiable facts that you had to leave out of the book.
My favourite fact that didn’t make the cut was the story of the kings of Sumer, probably the earliest urban civilization of all. It was said that each year the reigning king would be taken out by the priests and spanked soundly on the bottom before the assembled people to remind him that, however lofty he might be on Earth, in the eyes of the gods he was but a fool. How different the world might have turned out if this had been true.
Anwsers below to the Penguin Quiz on Twitter [Sept 15th 2011]
Q1. WHO... bit a snake on the tail?
Kenya: When Ben Nyaumbe was grabbed by a 13-foot python in 2009, he had the presence of mind to use his mobile phone to summon help. He next bit on to the snake’s tail to stop it eating him and waited. After Nyaumbe’s rescue, the python fled, and the police issued an arrest warrant.
Q2. WHY... did Catholic priests deem avocadoes a forbidden fruit?
The word ‘avocado’ comes from the fruit’s Nahuatl name, ahuakatl—which literally means ‘testicle’. Native to Mexico, the fruit was highly esteemed among the Aztecs as a sex stimulant as much as a food staple. Because of this, many Catholic priests forbade their congregations from partaking when it was brought back to Europe, and even in more modern times, avocados had to be procured nefariously to avoid heinous damage to a gentleman’s— or, worse, lady's—reputation.
Q3. WHICH... community is forbidden to grow, sell, eat or even touch lettuce?
Lettuces are taboo for Iraq’s Yazidi minority—they are forbidden to grow, sell, eat or even touch the salad leaf. Followers of Yazidism, a synthesis of Sufi Islam, Mithraism and traditional Kurdish folk beliefs, the Yazidi hold that the Earth is watched over by seven magical beings, led by the Peacock Angel*, and that, uniquely among mankind, they themselves are descended without the intervention of Eve from some sperm Adam stored in a jar—hence they never marry outsiders or accept them as converts. The origin of the aversion to lettuce is obscure. One story states that it arose in the 18th century, after Ottoman soldiers slaughtered thousands of Yazidi believers while they were tending their lettuce fields. However, another theory claims it is much older—arising after the body of a Yazid martyr was pelted with lettuces in 13th-century Mosul, while a third explanation claims it’s because of the vegetable’s alleged resemblance to the human ear.
*Muslims consider the Yazidi to be devil-worshippers, largely because one of the names the Peacock Angel goes by Is Shaytan, the Islamic term for Satan. The Yazidis deny this, however, and point out that the Peacock Angel’s tears have, in any case, already extinguished the fires of Hell.
Q4. WHAT... language do gorillas communicate with?
A farting gorilla is a happy gorilla, and Rwanda is the most popular place for visitors to catch a flavour of simian satisfaction firsthand. But while sustained farting is the main tool by which mountain gorillas communicate contentment to fellow group members, chest thumping, screaming and tearing at vegetation all signal trouble. In such circumstances, local advice is to crouch, avert one’s eyes and act submissively. If this doesn’t work, one last-ditch option is to brandish a caterpillar— as gorillas are all terrified of the little grubs.
Q5. WHO... wears high-visibility pink ‘Hello Kitty’ armbands to work?
Under a 2007 scheme, Bangkok police officers who committed minor transgressions such as parking violations or reporting late for work were shamed by being made to wear high- visibility pink ‘Hello Kitty’ armbands (set off with paired embroidered hearts) for several days. Serious offences remained subject to formal disciplinary procedures and punishment.
Q6. WHY... does Sardinian cheese walk?
Sardinian Casu Marzu cheese comes with quite a USP: it’s alive with maggots. The larvae are no garnish, it’s their digestive juices that transform ordinary pecorino into the desired oozing, weeping goo. Some say the cheese is dangerous, but the local view is it’s fine so long as the maggots are still moving. (If dead, the cheese is too ripe.)
Q7. WHICH... country has the most pyramids?
Sudan is home to more pyramids than anywhere else in the world—including Egypt.
OVERALL SCORE: Sudan 228–138 Egypt
Q8. WHAT... animal has mastered the secret of immortality?
A 5-mm-long Caribbean jellyfish appears to have mastered the secret of immortality. Turritopsis nutricula (above) achieves the unique trick by being able to turn itself back into a sexually immature juvenile once it has become an adult. In principle, the animal can then flip-flop between youth and adulthood ad infinitum. Having conquered death, the jellyfish is now busy taking over the world. Hitching a lift in the ballast tanks of shipping, it is creating new colonies worldwide, and, wherever it gets started, numbers explode thanks, in part, to the ability of each new individual to keep on reproducing endlessly.
Q9. WHO... has the most limited vocabulary?
With a total of just 340 recognized words, Taki-Taki— an English-Dutch creole that serves as Suriname’s lingua franca—is believed to have the most limited vocabulary of any living language.
Q10. WHY…is kissing on trains banned in France?
Kissing on French trains has been illegal since 1910, when it was banned to end the incessant delays caused by parting lovers.
Size : 153 x 234mm
Pages : 320
Published : 29 Sep 2011
Publisher : Particular Books
Who, or Why, or Which, or What...?
A Global Gazetteer of the Instructive and Strange
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