John Oldale
Interview Words : Peter Moore | 27 October

Strange facts from author John Oldale

John Oldale talks about his book 'Who or Why or Which or What?', an amazing compendium of facts from around the world

Why did you write the book?

I guess the chief reason was a wish to do something constructive with all the experiences, conversations and opportunities for contemplation that I have been privileged enough to enjoy while travelling over the last 20 years or so.

There are only so many holiday snaps you can bore people with, and the world already has enough blogs from the road covering – with honourable exceptions – a fairly restricted subset of places and activities. In any event, as time has gone by, I have become less interested in seeing the sorts of specific sights that get listed in guidebooks and more interested in trying to soak up the mood and feel of the cultures that host them.

I’m sure I’m not alone in frequently finding the other passengers on the train to the temple more interesting than the temple itself.

How did you research the book? On the internet? In a library? Or on the road?

I didn’t set foot in a library. I do, however, have a fairly extensive set of reference books at home, which were helpful for fact-checking and sometimes for background information. But even these I consulted fairly sparingly – when I started writing, I took out an online subscription to the Encyclopaedia Britannica but, in truth, even a hefty tome such as that usually didn’t go into the level of detail I needed. The hard facts in the book were largely obtained online.

Used cautiously, Wikipedia is a matchless resource and I would typically consult it while writing up most of the individual pieces. Wherever possible, I would then go beyond Wikipedia to more specialised sources – often material published in local languages or original academic papers (the abstracts are almost free, even if the papers themselves often require subscriptions). While relatively little in the book comes directly from my travelling, the experiences I’ve had were absolutely crucial in shaping how I wrote up many of the facts. The book would have been very different if it had been a purely desk project.

How long did it take you to compile the book?

Two years, which is longer than a project such as this would normally be planned to take. I sometimes think I could have written a book twice as long in half the time as the major issue was trying to distil down such a huge volume of information into the space I had.

You’ve travelled extensively. Did you discover any of the facts first hand?  How did you decide which facts went in to the book?

There is a sprinkling of facts that I came across directly in my travels – the mysterious stone balls that litter Costa Rica for example, or the fact that Belorussian children have their appendices removed to provide live subjects for medical students to practice on. But much more significantly, my travels were key to guiding me in the sorts of questions to ask in approaching each country.

Obviously, I chose facts that I thought would be entertaining or eye-opening, but, given this, I consciously tried to paint a picture of each country that mirrored my perception of the reality. So, for China, I wanted to capture the immense antiquity, the self-sufficiency, and the sheer gulf between Western culture and traditions and those at play in China. At the same time, I am firmly convinced that if the 19th century belonged to Europe and the 20th to America, the 21st belongs to China – and I wanted to make sure that my coverage highlighted this.

The map showing Zheng He’s 15th century  voyages of exploration alongside the modern Chinese ‘string of pearls’ theorem in its projection of naval power into the Indian Ocean is a case in point. In doing all of this, I drew very extensively on my experiences of the country when I travelled solo there for 100 days in the 1980s (on several occasions being the first westerner to visit an area since WWII).

What was your criteria? Sex, religious beliefs and crazy world leaders seem to feature heavily. Why is that?

Well, sex is pretty universal and, despite the best efforts of Enver Hoxha and his communist fellow-travellers, atheism has yet to catch on a big way outside of Western Europe. Crazy world leaders are thankfully somewhat less ubiquitous but there are still plenty of them around and they do make good copy.

Have you got facts for every single country?

Essentially, yes. There are two groups of microstates – the smaller Caribbean Islands and the Pacific archipelagos – that I have taken collectively. But even here, I have tried to give at least a titbit of information for each: the name of Niue (population 1,400) translates into English as ‘Behold the coconut!’. These grouping were done to save tedium, since there is truly little to say about many such small entities without descending into parish pump politics or guidebook flannel  along the lines of ‘the island harbours the third largest variety of club mosses south of St. Vincent’.

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. Finally, South Sudan became the world’s newest country on splitting from Sudan in July – it is included.

Were some countries easier to find strange facts for than others?  Which was the hardest country to find stuff for?

Generally, my main problem was deciding what to leave out. For big and historic countries such as the UK, US, France and so on, I gathered literally hundreds of facts that were both entertaining and surprising. Only a tiny fraction of these could be included.

There are very few countries that don’t have at least a handful of historical, cultural, geographical or natural curiosities. If pushed, however, I would say that Sao Tome (a tiny Atlantic archipelago off the coast of Central Africa) posed the greatest challenge, simply because its international profile is so extraordinarily low and much of what is available is written in Portuguese – not a language I speak.

Having said that, I was pretty pleased with the finished chapter: my favourite snippet is that in the 1980s smoking cigarettes in sight of the sea was banned after dark out of paranoia that it could be used as cover to signal to hostile submarines. I mean, really. Thankfully, a more enlightened regime is now in power and because of its extraordinary natural beauty, friendly people and legacy of old colonial buildings dating from its 19th century cocoa boom, I am keen to visit.

Are there any facts that will save your life?

Possibly. Topics covered include how to extricate yourself from a minefield, collect water from dew in a desert, placate an angry gorilla and fend off hungry polar bears and crocodiles. However, I personally wouldn’t want to rely on any of these. Although offered in good faith, I am especially dubious of the proposition that waving a caterpillar in the face of a charging gorilla is a sure-fire way of getting it to back-off.

Any facts about particular countries travellers should keep to themselves if visiting?

In writing Who, or Why, or Which, or What?, I tried hard to draw a distinction between being nasty to any nationalities and being nasty to their leaders. This, of course, leaves plenty of potentially disgruntled despots. For this reason, you might wish not to mention too loudly that Kim Jung Il wears four inch platform shoes while travelling in North Korea – inexplicably, it’s a sore point.

It would probably also be wise not to dispute too strongly President Professor Doctor Jammeh’s claim to be able to cure AIDS using a pair of bananas, while taking a beach break in Gambia.

Are there any facts you had to leave out that you wish you could have included? What were they?

There was a lot of material that had to be excluded for reasons of taste and decency. Life is lived pretty close to the bone in much of the world and while I have tried to draw this out, there are limits to what can be said without wishing to give readers nightmares or make them throw up.

I also received very firm instructions from Penguin HQ not even to hint that, just possibly, on the rarest of occasions, Canadians can conceivably be the teenie-weeniest bit boring. I replied by saying that hadn’t a clue what they meant: I have had some truly memorable experiences with Canadian friends – like the time we all drove 80 miles into the forest to spend a day watching the maple syrup sap drip (did you know a good tree can give up to two drips an hour?).

What are your five favourite facts in the book?

That is a very difficult question as it all depends on my mood. One favourite is the table of idioms used in Papua New Guinean pidgin (a ‘bone bicycle’ is a thin person; a ‘shoe sock man’ is a town-dweller – who consequently wears shoes and socks).

Another is the medieval fable of the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary. Allegedly a plant found in Central Asia that bore lambs covered in soft fleece as fruits, this was almost certainly a garbled description of cotton (still a major product of the region).

Some facts are so ‘out there’, they make me wonder how anyone could have lent them credence. One example is that the Sakalava clan of Madagascar used to kill all children born on a Tuesday as they thought they were unlucky. Another is the current practice in Bhutan of hanging anyone who dies aged 81 upside down from the ceiling until they would have reached 82 (at which point the corpse is cremated). Then there is the post code the Canadians have given to Santa Claus (H0H 0H0) – see, they do have a sense of humour.

Do you do well in pub quizzes?

I haven’t done a pub quiz in ages. But, no, because I am terrible at all the celebrity gossip. As far as I’m concerned, most of these questions are asking about the minutiae of the lives of random names.

Do you think you could have written this book if you hadn’t travelled so extensively?

I could have written a book with the same title. But it wouldn’t have been this book, and I don’t think it would have been nearly as interesting nor would it have come from the soul.

What do you hope people will take away from this book?

Well, first up, I hope they have a good guffaw and that it entertainingly passes an idle few minutes. I deliberately wrote the book in magazine format to make it easy to dip into for five or ten minutes at a time.

Beyond that, I do hope it makes at least some people think a little more about the astounding and wonderful diversity to be found on our planet and, above all, encourages them to build their own mental bridges between their own experiences and some of the subjects discussed.

While I’m not sure I would describe Who, or Why, or Which, or What? as a travel book, it is emphatically a book that was written for travellers. After all, the mere fact that someone enjoys travelling automatically makes them open to the world and the experiences it has to offer. Hopefully this book can only enhance their enjoyment of exploring the world for themselves and just possibly nudge them into pondering the significance of what they see, hear and do a little more deeply. As I say in the introduction, although superficially this book concerns itself with oddities and differences, at root all of humanity shares much in common and I hope what I have written also draws this out.

John Oldale's new book Who, or Why, or Which, or What? is available to buy now. Order your copy on Amazon here. Or try your luck and enter the Wanderlust competition to win one of five copies here.

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