Interview: Mitch Symons
He’s turned an obsession with the trifling into a career as a best-selling writer
Mitchell Symons gave up his job as a film producer to write questions for the Trivial Pursuit board game
Here is a quiz question for you. Who is Britain's foremost expert on trivia? The answer, almost certainly, is Mitchell Symons. Although such things are hard to quantify, Symons has written a string of bestselling books packed with interesting, weird and occasionally gross facts about everything from sex to travel to the toilet habits of the Inuit people.
There also happen to be a couple of quite interesting facts about Symons himself. Firstly, when Chris Tarrant was asked who he would have as his "phone a friend" if he were to appear on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, he nominated Symons. In fact, Tarrant has actually made that call.
Symons recalls: "I was sitting in a railway carriage and I got this call from Chris on a bad line saying that a magazine was doing an interview with him, and was doing the Millionaire quiz on him. He had supposedly got to £250,000. The question was: 'What year did the Berlin Wall go up'. Fortunately I knew it was 1961."
The second interesting fact about Symons is that he is the proud owner of not one but two Blue Peter badges, which he received along with his two Blue Peter awards for the best book with facts - won in two successive years. This year's prize was for his latest book, Do Igloos Have Loos? He says: "I was surprised and pleased to win it again. It's great because I'm not normally the kind of person who wins things. At school I was lazy and rebellious and I didn't tend to win very much at all."
If put a rude word in the title, you sell more
Although his books are unabashedly, well, trivial, 54-year-old Symons does have an educational subtext in his work. "Basically it's a spoonful of sugar making the medicine go down. It's very alarming that boys in particular, when they get to the age of 10 or 11 stop reading. I'm absolutely determined that wherever possible they carry on so I take great pride when people tell me that my books are the only ones their children read. If I can keep boys reading from 10 until they are old enough to get on to adult books then I will have achieved something."
Not that he wants children to read all of his books. While some are written for the under-13s, there are others whose content is not suitable for kids.
"A while back I got a letter from a young girl saying that she had just bought all of my books. I was a bit worried because one of them, called Where Do Nudists Keep Their Hankies, is all about sex. I wrote to her asking for her mother's email address. I told her that this book and another called Don't get Me Started, which is written in pretty strong language, would not be suitable for her daughter. She wrote back saying that her daughter had already read both books and if she was going to learn about sex she might as well learn it from books than the school playground."
While Symons is concerned that children are protected from adult themes, he is not beyond a little naughtiness himself - reflected in the fact that most of his books have rude word in their titles. Previous books have included, Why Do Farts Smell Like Rotten Eggs?, Why Bogeys Are Good for You and Why You Need a Passport When You're Going to Puke. He explains: "I don't actually make up the titles - I'm consulted on them. The publishers say that if you put rude words in the title you get more sales."
And why do you need a passport when you're going to puke? "Puke is a town in Albania, so if you want to go there, you need a passport," Symons replies.
Symons still gets excited about a good fact, and the Puke one reminds him of his favourite Jewish one. "Albania was the only country in occupied Europe to have more Jews at the end of the war than it had at the beginning. I think only two Albanian Jews died in the Holocaust." It comes as something of a surprise when Symons admits that he does not know their names.
Among his vast reservoir of facts are plenty about Jews. One of his favourites is that many Ashkenazi Jews lack the enzyme which process alcohol and stops you from getting drunk too quickly. "Native Americans also lack this gene but in their case they carried on drinking and therefore lost all their land. We just fressed and fressed until we got heart attacks."
Symons, who was raised in Edgware, north west London and now lives on the south coast, has been captivated by facts since he was a boy. "I read a lot of non-fiction books and became fascinated by surprising facts. These days I'm equally thrilled when I can debunk something that people assume to be a fact, for example the myth that the first person to stop applauding a speech by Stalin was taken away and shot. It's not true. As a kid, the less important stuff tended to stick in my brain and the more important stuff didn't. Even when I was studying law at university I remembered the really juicy criminal law cases and forgot everything else."
However, he was able to turn what he initially thought was a failing into a lucrative career. Having worked for the BBC for a number of years he became the director of production at a film and TV company - but became frustrated when he found he had nothing to do. So in 1985 he quit his job and contacted the makers of the game Trivial Pursuit which had just been released in Britain. "It could have been written just for me. I told them I'd like to write questions for them. They agreed so I wrote about 1,000 for the second edition."
The task was made more challenging by the fact that there was no internet in the 1980s. "I used to walk around the house looking at things to see if I could make a question out of them. For example, do you know what word comes between 'baked' and 'beans' on tins of Heinz Baked Beans? It's 'oven'. Then you start playing with words. For example, what is the only sport where you clean after you jerk? The answer is weightlifting. You can have a lot of fun."
In fact, for Symons there is nothing to beat the excitement of discovering a new fact. But what is his favourite?
He ponders for a moment before answering. "A lot of people know that the record for a professional football match was Abroath's 36-0 win against Bon Accord in 1885. But very people know that the previous record, was Dundee Harp's 35-0 win against Aberdeen Rovers, which was set earlier the same day. "When I discovered that, I was so excited I practically couldn't sleep."
Mitchell Symons's fact books for children are published by Red Fox