'Who do they want doing this time?'

September 22, 2000

Hugh Richards explains (below) what it is like to be a contributor

The procedure has become familiar. The envelope, with its Oxford postmark, is extracted from the pile of bank statements, junk mail and newspapers on the doormat, with the pleasurable speculation "Who do they want doing this time?" The first request, to write about Welsh rugby player Gwyn Nicholls (1874-1939) came in mid-1997. There have been nine more since - two solicited, the rest more or less out of the blue. A variegated bunch - three more rugby players, a footballer, two press proprietors, two journalists and a newspaper manager.

The deadline is always a few months ahead, the length in the range of 650-1,000 words - miniaturism to an academic (entries for the major figures can run to 10,000 words or more), but comparable to a short newspaper profile. For a journalist, to be asked to contribute still feels like a compliment.

Consciousness of the DNB's status and long shelf-life can be mildly inhibiting, although both Colin Matthew and Brian Harrison have warned that the overall tone should not be po-faced. But perhaps what feels like over-judiciousness to a journalist will pass for comparative levity in essentially academic surroundings.

Research brings surprises of its own. In the middle of the last century the editor of the Daily Mirror, then the highest-selling daily newspaper in the world, did not merit an entry in Who's Who. This necessitated a trawl through the birth registers at the Family Records Centre (giving thanks that he had an unusual name, Silvester Bolam, and was born in a small town) and finding he was born in 1905, not 1906 as previously advertised. A tiny discovery, but there is a pleasure in anything that revises knowledge of the past.

Then there is the issue of how to describe people. The only reason for an entry on Nicholls is that he was a great rugby player. But this was a 65-year life in which he played rugby, as an amateur, for about 15 years. Is the rest to be wholly disregarded? "Rugby player and businessman" was the final outcome.

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