Who'll be hot and who'll be not in '09
You may not have heard of Professor J. Peter Neary, born in Drogheda in 1950 and Professor of Economics at the University of Oxford since 2006, but he has just been inducted into one of the most elite lists of influential people in modern society: Who's Who.
The thick red leather-bound tome carries with it a kind of reverence that few other reference books can command. It's easier to get into Krystle on a Saturday night than into Who's Who, but once you're in, you're there for life.
Even Hitler and Mussolini managed to hold on to their places in the book. "Throughout the war Mussolini's entry remained in the book and he continued to list his recreations (violin, riding, fencing, motoring, flying)," says Suzi Williamson of publishers A & C Black. Meanwhile, Hitler even (perhaps ill-advisedly) listed his telephone number -- Berlin 11 6191.
The book was established in 1849 and was the first book of its kind to be published. Back then, it was a slim volume of 250 pages (one tenth of its current size, which contains 33,000 biographies).
In 1897, it expanded to provide information on people's 'recreations,' which are still included today. The recreations section is where Who's Who alumni really come into their own because it's where they get to flaunt their personalities (while some entries opt to list no recreations at all). George Bernard Shaw famously listed his recreations as 'cycling and showing off,' while one of this year's new entries, barrister Robert Graham Bright, cited 'murdering Schubert' as his recreation.
Mark Billingham, crime author of In The Dark, is a new entry this year and says the recreations section is "the bit that people always comment on and nobody wants to be thought of as dull. I don't think you would list 'sitting on my backside and watching Big Brother' as your main recreations even if that's what they were. Not that I'm saying that's what mine are, of course".
Professor Peter Neary, one of the few new Irish entries this year, said: "These kinds of publications serve many purposes, especially in a relatively large country like the UK. In Ireland everyone knows everyone else, but over here that is never possible. I have been surprised to find myself in a number of conversations and committees in England where potential candidates for a job were discussed and someone has suggested looking them up in Who's Who."
Does he consider it an honour to be included, especially as one of the relatively few Irish selections? "Definitely a huge honour. More importantly, my mother is delighted! I hope the days when we Irish felt, or were made to feel, apologetic for our origins are over. Irish people now compete successfully on the world stage in so many spheres, and it is great to be recognised as playing a small part in that process."
Likewise, Billingham says he was thrilled, especially when he saw who else was on the list. "Appearing on any list alongside the latest James Bond and Dave Gilmour from Pink Floyd is hugely cool."
But not just any old celebrity can get in. Who's Who favours achievement over fame, which is why anyone not considered to have enduring influence is not included.
This year's entries include the aforementioned Professor Neary, along with the provost of Trinity College, Dr John Hegarty. Daniel Craig is the fourth Bond actor to make it in (Timothy Dalton and George Lazenby never did) and his entry reveals his middle name to be Wroughton. Rob Brydon of Gavin and Stacey fame is included as is handbag designer Anya Hindmarch and president-elect Barack Obama.
In order to keep the selection process impartial, it is a closely guarded secret, but it doesn't stop people nominating themselves for inclusion. "Some hopefuls bombard us with letters solicited from as many eminent friends as they can muster," said Williamson. "The Rolling Stones' 'gift', in the early 1970s, of a barrow of flowers (shared out among all the staff and taken home with much pleasure!) was just one persuasive ploy."
So just why do so many people want to get into the Who's Who? "An invitation to appear in Who's Who recognises distinction and influence," says Williamson. It might seem archaic, even classist (it started off as a list of the royal family, judges, government ministers and titled people), but today it is much more liberal and egalitarian.
Women still only make up 20pc of the 'biographies' listed in the book but that reflects "the measure to which women hold positions of power, interest and influence in society".
While being included in Who's Who may not change your life it can come in handy, as Germaine Greer once found out. "Once when I was in Khartoum, I was grabbed by the presidential guard outside President Nimeiry's palace. I protested that I had an appointment with someone in the government and was only trying to find him. They took me into an office where I was left waiting to be chucked out.
"Who's Who was on the official's desk. I asked him to look me up, hoping against hope I was in it. He smiled in disbelief but I insisted that he look up the name in my passport, and there I was! Suddenly there was a reception committee, red carpet, drinks, the lot."
Who's Who 2009 is published by A & C Black.