It's the little things that count
PUBLISHED: 12:14 13 October 2015 | UPDATED: 12:14 13 October 2015
Catherine Larner meets Boxford-based author Mark Mason, who's turned trivia into an art form.
The lure of the exotic combined with an abundance of cheap flights to foreign destinations has left many of us forgetting to explore places closer to home but, as a new book reveals, there is much to uncover.
Did you know that Batman’s home city of Gotham is named after a village in Nottinghamshire, the toothbrush was invented in Newgate gaol, and The Nutshell in Bury St Edmunds is Britain’s smallest pub?
Mail Obsession is an affectionate portrait of Britain explored through the 124 postcode areas which divide it. There are facts, anecdotes and overheard conversations, while at the same time it delves into the history of the Royal Mail, its pillar boxes, post vans and unsealed envelopes.
Boxford based author Mark Mason has made it his life’s work to collect intriguing random facts and his conversation is never dull. He can tell you, for example, that former England rugby player Lawrence Dallaglio was one of the backing singers on Tina Turner’s We Don’t Need Another Hero.
Mark is the go-to person for trivia, providing him with an entertaining and satisfactory living producing books, newspaper articles, walking tours and organizing quizzes.
“I didn’t learn anything of value at university,” he says about his economics and politics degree. He believes he should have entered the workplace sooner. After graduating he was first selling Christmas cards in Harrods, then touring Europe in a blues band before working as a researcher on BBC Radio for Loose Ends and MidWeek, and writing novels.
“I sold my first novel just before my 30th birthday. It was a nice book deal and the books did OK. But then I had an idea for a non-fiction title and it did ridiculously well.”
The book that put him on the path to compiling humour or ‘loo books’ was Lost in Translation, which listed badly written yet hilarious signs and notices collected on his travels.
“You spend ages writing and rewriting 100,000 words of a novel and it sells all right, and then you put a load of notices from Bangkok hotel rooms into a book and it flies off the shelves,” he observes wryly.
To differentiate this book from his other work, he wrote under the pseudonym, Charlie Croker, Michael Caine’s character in The Italian Job. Everything has significance for a man obsessed with trivia. Two more collections followed before Mark, chatting to his editor about their mutual love of silly facts, realised he had another idea for a book.
We all know someone who can recount football scores of the last 20 years. But why do we retain such apparently useless information, and why do we find it so appealing? For example, did you know that as a child Chopin used to sleep with wooden wedges between his fingers so they would stretch, giving him a greater span on the piano?
In The Importance of Being Trivial Mark investigated the nature of trivia, the differences between male and female brains in retaining such random pieces of information, and what makes a perfect fact. He has walked the London Underground, over ground, and travelled from Land’s End to John O’Groats by local buses, to demonstrate that there are intriguing details in our nation’s history which often get overlooked or dismissed as being just too ridiculous.
“The best trivia really does reveal something about life, and certainly about science,” he says. “If you tell kids that the speed of sound is 700 miles an hour and the speed of light is 186,000 miles a second, they’ll switch off. But tell them that it’s why, standing at the bottom of Big Ben with a radio you’ll hear the chimes over the airwaves before you hear them ‘for real’, it will stay in their head in a way that no other fact would.” (Look up the physics – it’s brilliant.)
So there is a point to trivia, then? Mark quotes the BBC’s fact-based panel show QI as evidence. “[Its creator] John Lloyd says that the reason why QI has succeeded is because we are all born curious.”
Mark’s endless supply of facts has created a great bond between him and his young son, he says. The postcode map of Britain for his new book is currently on Barney’s bedroom wall, and school projects provide a rich source of new material. And he is also able to help with homework.
“We swap facts. I can tell him that the monument in the City of London is 202 feet tall because if you lie it on its side it reaches where the Great Fire of London started.”
Mark is much sought after as quizmaster for local fundraisers, but he also travels regularly to Highgate in London to participate in, and occasionally run, what he considers the best pub quiz in the country. It’s one of the joys of living in Suffolk, Mark says, that he can be enjoying his last pint in the capital just before midnight, and still catch the last train home.
“I think the best facts are always the ones that make you laugh, like the fact that Ringo Starr has never eaten pizza. That is childishly funny, and enjoying facts like this is a great reminder that we should never grow up.”