August 30, 2011. The sky is dull, grey. There is a chill in the air, typical of the English summer.
Roger Allsopp, age seventy years and four months, has been swimming for approximately five hours. Five hours since his eight a.m. start. Five hours since he walked, feet slipping on the wet pebbles, into the tide at Shakespeare Beach in Dover. Five months since he first swam across the English Channel. The first five hours were the physical test, the rest is left to the power of his mind. The retired breast cancer surgeon reminds himself why he’s doing this, reminds himself of the thousands of pounds that will be raised for cancer research at the University of Southampton.
He hears a distant whistle. That can mean one of two things: either he is swimming too close to the boat or it’s feeding time. Guinness World Records hold strict guidelines for this particular attempt. He can only wear swimming trunks. He must walk from the beach in Dover into the sea. The record is only complete once he sets foot on French soil. He cannot, at any stage, touch the boat that is idling along next to him, monitoring his progress. He is given a sugary energy feed every half hour via a bottle attached to string. The bottle is thrown out to him, he hurriedly drinks for no longer than ten seconds, and then it is reeled back in. The water currents mess with his route plan. He swims in a lazy, arching, snake-like course. He hears what vaguely sounds like shouts of encouragement, perhaps even a cheer from the boat. His record-attempt team, two nutritionists and his mentor, anxiously watch him from the boat. A giant industrial tanker passes, cutting through his path. He is a tiny, determined David surrounded by massive, streamlined Goliaths.
Anna Orford is doubled over, hurling whatever’s left in her gut over the side of the boat. She has only been with Guinness World Records for six months. Her job is to adjudicate, to witness the record attempt and maintain the organization’s rigorous guidelines. She had not expected to be overcome with severe seasickness and spend the entire journey across the Channel heaving. As a French woman now residing in London, she has crossed the Channel by boat many a time, but never at such a slow crawl.
She steadies herself and attempts to straighten her uniform: dark blue blazer emblazoned with the Guinness logo, yellow striped tie, crisp white shirt and beige trousers. She has been likened to a schoolgirl in the uniform, but she brushes this off as a result of her short stature. When she wears the suit she is no longer Orford, owner of cats Dylan and Twiddles, lover of hot chocolate and biscotti, but Orford of Guinness World Records. She checks her timer, eyes struggling to focus against a wave of nausea.
Orford has been ready for this attempt since five a.m. In fact, she has been ready for the past three weeks. She has been called out to the Dover coastline twice, but promptly sent back home owing to unfavorable current and weather conditions. Her journey to becoming a Guinness World Records judge began long before Robert Allsopp, but has been just as indirect as his swimming path. Perhaps it began with her degree in Hispanic studies from University College London. Or perhaps it began in Paris with evening theater and acting classes. Or maybe it was at a Flamenco gig where she fell in love with the gorgeous man onstage, who later convinced her to move to New York.
It was in New York that she began to follow her theatrical passion seriously. She enrolled in classes at the Atlantic Theatre School, classes that built up her self-esteem to the point that she returned to London to start a master’s in theater directing at the prestigious London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art. Perhaps it was all these factors combined that lead Orford to open the Guardian newspaper, on a Monday morning, to their job section and respond to a short, unassuming advertisement: “Do you speak any languages? Particularly French? Do you have any experience with the media?”
Half an hour later, Orford was asked to come in for an interview the following day. With no details surrounding what she was being interviewed for, she decided to dress as corporate as possible. After meeting with the recruitment company and learning that the position was for a Guinness World Records judge, Orford was sent away to produce a mock-up video of her adjudicating and presenting a record. She manically absorbed every YouTube clip she could find of record adjudication: a fearless blonde woman standing in front of a blazing tunnel of fire, seconds before a daredevil “stares down death” and motorcycles through it; another blonde woman beaming as an Australian teenager is covered in 125 golden orb spiders while lying in a Perspex coffin; two smartly dressed Spanish men giggling and measuring as a woman blows a gum bubble the size of a baby.
Orford dragged her then-boyfriend and her neighbor to their local park to film the then-boyfriend flipping as many coins as possible into a pot within thirty seconds. Then she waited. She was called in for a further two interviews and subjected to grueling personality tests and character analyses. Orford felt sorely out of her depth. She could stand on stage and recite Ophelia’s speech without hesitation, but this microscopic scrutiny was overwhelming.
She was offered the position.
In the last four years, the job has taken her to Russia, Japan, India and pretty much every country in Europe. Germany is a firm favorite of Orford’s. From experience she expects German record attempts to run as smoothly and efficiently as a BMW’s engine. In India she is always treated as a VIP.
“Like a visiting emperor, I have the power to confirm or destroy dreams with a thumbs up or down,” she says. “I don’t deserve this elevation. It’s my clipboard, suit and the Guinness logo.”
In a small town in Taiwan she made the near-fatal error of kissing the town mayor on both cheeks, a common practice in France but not as acceptable among the personal-space-abiding Taiwanese. Orford quickly learned to adapt to different cultures, environments, record attempts. Like a chameleon she absorbs the details surrounding an attempt: a few key phrases in the record attempter’s language, cultural practices and norms, the history of the record. She learned to tread the fine line between respect and judgment. She is there to bear witness to personal feats and acts of passion, not to judge motives and relevance.
In Orford’s eyes there is never a “silly” attempt, but rather a relief from the heavier, emotional ones. She has adjudicated the most jellybeans moved with chopsticks in a tight, one-minute time frame. She remembers an Indian man who had all his teeth removed in an attempt to fit as many straws as possible into his mouth. He failed at his attempt.
“There’s a French expression: ‘Passer du coq à l’âne,’” says Orford. “It means ‘from the rooster to the donkey.’”
Orford offers this as explanation for the wide range of record attempts, from the light to heavy, serious to frivolous. And she has seen it all. Despite the constant travel, shifting cultural practices and wildly different record attempts, Orford’s goal is to always maintain the Guinness World Record’s values of integrity, respect and inclusiveness.
“I’m like a kindergarten teacher,” she muses, “friendly but firm.”
Orford’s preparation for a record attempt begins long before she times, measures or counts. First, the Guinness scheduling department will email her requesting her availability for specific dates and a potential location. As with the cloak-and-dagger style of Orford’s initial interview, this is all the information she is given. It is only a week to ten days before the attempt that she is fed more details. She is given the type of record to be attempted, the attempter’s contact details and her travel arrangements. Then she begins her extensive research. She happily falls into an online rabbit hole, soaking up all the information she possibly can. Is it an existing record? If so, what are the specific guidelines? Is this a first-time record? If so, what is the history behind the attempt?
Orford will then contact the record attempter. Again, she will adapt her communication to every individual, who range from representatives of huge brands such as Samsung to the hopeful fourteen-year-old boy in his bedroom. This is her first insight into their world. She endeavors to be approachable and reassuring, aware that the established, sixty-year-old Guinness World Records association can be intimidating and mysterious. Traveling to the far-flung locations of record attempts always follows the same ritual for Orford. An early morning flight means a mad dash to pack. The cat’s slept on her adjudicator’s suit and she rushes to lint roll off the cat hair. She bundles into a taxi, armed with her adjudicator’s equipment: stopwatch, clicker, tape measure and a frame for the certificate, should the attempter be successful.
“I hate everything about airports by now,” she says. The harsh artificial light, the recycled smell, the air hostess’s perfect lipstick, the dithering tourists. This is business for her. Her empathetic nerves for the attempter are already beginning to build. “I feel like a mother about to watch my child’s first nativity play.”
Once settled on the flight she begins to leave behind her life — her cats, her boyfriend blissfully snoring in their bed in London — and prepares herself to become the judge. It starts with makeup and her official suit. This is her mask, her authority. By the time she arrives she is fully prepared for her reception. The record attempt’s organizers greet her with a mixture of awe and terror. With the click of a stopwatch and snap of a tape measure she holds the power to delight or destroy someone’s dreams of glory. This is a responsibility Orford takes very seriously. Throughout her four years with Guinness she has witnessed the extremes a person will push themselves to in order to follow their passion. She is there to bear witness and celebrate achievement.
“Yes, I may be a ‘judge,’” she says, “but I never pass judgment.”
Pitch darkness. Allsopp has missed the tide, adding an extra three hours to his journey. The sun never graced him with an appearance so the water temperature has drifted to around seventeen degrees Celsius. Only the faint, distant lights from the Calais bay are his guide. Finally, just before two a.m., after seventeen hours, fifty-one minutes and nineteen seconds, Allsopp sets foot on French soil at the bay. Everything is a blur. He can hardly speak, his throat burned from swallowing sea water for hours. He can’t remember his name, that he is married. He is bloated, exhausted, freezing. He is an absolute mess. But he’s done it. Roger Allsopp is the oldest person, to this day, to have swum across the English Channel.
Orford is overcome by the determination, grit and endurance of this man — Guernsey native and grandfather-of-three. Tears stream down her face.
* * *
Claire Gordon-Webster is a British born, South African-raised, London-residing freelance writer and recovering soap star. She documents her exploits at The Plight Of The Ambitious Woman. You can follow her here: @CGordonWebster.