In 1974, the year I emerged, blinking into the world, the Guinness Book of Records became the fastest selling copyrighted book. It gained its own entry in the Guinness Book of Records. It still holds that record now. Every year on my birthday I board a train and drink a can of Guinness, in honour of the day my grandpa died.
. . .
Wheels sing out a familiar rhythm as they click and clack over the tracks. I allow my head to nod along as I watch fields blur past through the safety glass. My mother has told me Grandpa’s story so many times that I can recite it in my sleep. It seems I often do. In my dreams my grandpa is frail and struggles to walk, even with his stick. His grey flat cap rests slightly lopsided on his balding head and his legs bow a little, in keeping with his rounded shoulders. That’s how he looks in the pictures I have. But he wasn't always like that.
I never met the man.
He took his last breath minutes after my first. In the same, unfamiliar, hospital.
One of thirteen skinny children, crowded into a candle-lit Victorian terrace, Grandpa had to clamour for attention. He was often overlooked and underfed. He earned his keep in a dusty cotton mill from nine years old. The welts on his back at the end of each 14 hour day were evidence of his inability to be seen and not heard. But blending into the background did not come naturally to Chester Butters. He became obsessed with recognition, with making a name for himself and avoiding obscurity. Not having much in the way of resources or education, he came to the conclusion that breaking a world record would make sure he went down in history.
In his twenties and thirties his sinewy muscles and rippling six pack were famous around the local area. In a small town with little to do, people would often turn up to watch Grandpa's monthly record attempts on the track. But they were always disappointed when, in spite of their cheering, he failed to run a sub four minute mile. Not as disappointed as Grandpa.
During his forties, Grandpa started to develop osteoporosis as a result of his earlier malnutrition, and was forced to retire from strenuous activities. But not before he had sustained multiple injuries trying to lift more than Louis Cyr, throw a discus further than M. Sheridan and swim the channel faster than Captain Matthew Webb. That last one nearly killed him. Twice.
In 1954, when Grandpa was already feeling the years, a man named Roger Banister achieved what my grandpa could not. He made his way into the history books, running a mile in 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds. Less than a second under the line. Grandpa screwed up his face whenever it was mentioned.
Grandpa's eyes grew heavy with age in the 1960's but, unable to rest, he saw many a sunrise. He tried several times to stay awake for a record period of time. But he didn’t do well with that, and no one was willing to hang around to try to record it either. He always claimed he had gone five days at one point, but that did not set a record of any kind, and he could not convince anyone that he had really managed it. In 1974 Roger Guy English stayed awake for twelve solid days. By that time Grandpa was lucky not to nod off before lunch.
Also in 1974, at the age of 98, having never smoked in his life, my grandpa shuffled and limped into his local corner shop and bought a pack of ten Marlboro to see what all the fuss was about. Might as well try it once, he thought.
“Now my lad,” he said to the smiling shop assistant. “Would you be so kind as to open them for me?” His hands shook a little on the counter as the young man obliged.
The cellophane was soon removed and the pack flipped open. But instead of a silver inner paper to be ripped away with a satisfying tug, there in the box sat a bright red ticket.
“Oh, Sir, I think you’ve won!” said the shop assistant, eyes widening and jaw dropping.
“Won? Won what, lad? What?”
“It’s a national competition, tickets for the new jet powered train. They’re having a world record attempt in the summer." He leaned over the counter and showed the ticket to Grandpa. "Giving away twenty-five tickets to the public in cigarette packets. You’ve won! You could sell this for a fortune!”
“Jet powered train? I think I heard something on the wireless about it." Grandpa scratched his head. "Yes, record attempt, trying to beat that American ‘Black Beetle’ from 1966. 183.68 miles an hour it went, you know. What do you know about the competition lad?”
“Well, not much Sir, just that this ticket will get you a ride on the train during the attempt. I think you just show up on the day and give them this. Look, there’s details on the back.”
Grandpa’s eyes glazed over for a moment, and he dreamed of one final chance to go down in history.
. . .
“You can’t be serious Dad? You’re ninety-eight with brittle bones! A train going 200 miles an hour cannot be a good place for you. They probably won’t let you on anyway. Are you sure there’s no age limit?” My mother was aghast.
“I do have to sign a disclaimer. But what is it they say? Better to die doing what you love.”
“Since when have you loved trains?”
“You don’t understand, Gillian. It’s the last chance I have to be part of a world record. And a really exciting one!” He took a breath and then let out a tuneless rendition of the Record Breakers theme song. The programme had started around Christmas in 1972 and Grandpa had watched every single episode. “If you want to be the best, and stand out from the rest, Ooooooo dedication’s what you need. If you want to be a record breaker!”
“Well, ok. But if you have a heart attack at top speed no one will be able to help you." Mum raised her eyebrows. "You’ll come back dead.”
“Dead and happy, Love. Dead and happy.”
. . .
My heavily pregnant mother, and my slightly incredulous father, loaded Grandpa into the passenger seat of their yellow Ford Cortina at 5.30am on June 27th 1974. Grandpa sang the theme tune to “Record Breakers” the whole time.
“Are you sure you want to come Gillian?” Asked Dad, patting her belly with a gentle hand. “What about the baby?”
“I’m not due for three weeks. We’ll be fine.” She replied with a smile, and a wish that people would stop fussing. Before anyone could change their mind, she bundled herself into the back seat, fanning her face with the road atlas.
“If you want to be the best, and stand out from the rest,” sang Grandpa. “Ooooo dedication’s what you need!”
The record attempt was to be made on the famously straight Redhill – Tunbridge line in the south-east. It was a three-hour drive to Redhill, where Grandpa would board the train. Sadly for my family, the M25 would not open for another year, and navigating around the bottom of London with a paper road atlas was not the easiest of tasks. Especially with my mother shouting angry, pregnant, directions from the back seat.
They arrived at Redhill to discover that the quaint little station had very limited parking and most of it was already taken by the press. Though Grandpa was unconcerned once he spotted TV presenter Roy Castle doing a piece to camera outside the ticket office.
“There he is! There he is!” Grandpa pointed and waved as we drove past, failing again to find anywhere to park. “If you want to be the best! And stand out from the rest!”
Eventually my parents dropped Grandpa off with his ticket and his walking stick and asked a kindly young woman, with a very red hat, to help him check in. My mother didn’t drive, and my father would not allow her, in her condition, to get out of the car with all those crowds around the place. Grandpa insisted that they leave him there. He would be fine. He hadn’t got to 98 without knowing how to look after himself.
“Oooooo dedication’s what you need!”
“Good luck, Dad!” shouted Mum from the back seat.
“Bon voyage, Chester!” said Dad, sweating as he pulled away from the drop off point and went to look for somewhere nearby to park.
. . .
“Dave. Dave. I think the baby’s coming.” Mum had started to panic as her waters broke on to the upholstery.
“Just what we need!” Dad tried to stay calm but his voice was raised past the point of pleasantries. “Where’s the nearest hospital? Check the map!”
“It’s the Royal Surrey in Guildford.”
“Guildford! That’s about 45 minutes away.”
“Put your foot down, Dave. I don’t think we have much time.”
. . .
I was born at 1.33pm in the Royal Surrey County Hospital on June 27th 1974.
My Grandpa died seventeen minutes later, at 1.50pm, in the Royal Surrey County Hospital on June 27th 1974.
We never met.
Grandpa must have got to the check in at Redhill, signed away his rights and boarded the train somehow, because he was definitely on it when it derailed at 172 miles an hour. It crashed onto the embankment somewhere in the Kent countryside, gouging a new ditch out of the ground and bouncing through the grass and trees like a giant Tonka toy on a deep green carpet.
Apparently there was ‘unusual track interaction’ partly due to the heat. Or so the report said when the investigation was over.
The paramedic who had brought him in to A&E, quickly learned that Mum and Dad and I were also in the hospital and came to find us to break the news himself.
“Mr and Mrs Stevenson? May I come in?”
“Of course, of course, are you from the labour ward?” asked Dad. “I think my wife needs some pain relief.”
“No, no, I’m a paramedic. I just changed out of my uniform, it was a bit messy. I’m Frank, Frank Vernon.”
“Is everything alright?”
“I’m sorry but I have some difficult news. You’d better sit-down, Sir.” He gestured to my dad, who took the armchair next to my mother’s bed.
Mum held me, wrapped in a knitted blanket, as Frank Vernon pulled up a plastic chair for himself.
“She’s beautiful.” Said Frank. “What will you call her?”
“We actually don’t have a name. We thought we had another three weeks to decide," said Mum.
“Ah, sometimes they do come unexpectedly.”
“What was the news you had for us?” asked Dad.
“Well, I’m very sorry, but the jet train your father was on. Chester Butters. There was an accident.”
“Oh God. What happened? I told him not to get on it.”
“The train derailed, and there were no survivors. I’m so sorry, but your father has passed away.”
Mum’s face fell, and the tears flowed. Dad reached an arm around her and kissed her forehead.
“Where is he?” asked Mum.
“He’s here, in the hospital. He had a lot of broken bones but he made it back here in the ambulance before he passed. He wasn’t able to speak. But we did find this in his wallet.” Frank pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and handed it to my dad.
On one side was written ‘Boy’ and a list of boy’s names and their meanings. On the other ‘Girl’ and further notes. They were all, unmistakably, in Grandpa’s shaky hand.
“I thought you’d want to see it.”
“Oh, it looks like he was thinking ahead,” said Dad, holding out the scrap of paper to my mother.
“All these names, they must have made him think of record breakers. Look, Roger, Guy, Roy, Morris these are the people he always talked about. What does he suggest for a girl?”
“Record breakers?” asked the paramedic.
“Yeah, he was a bit obsessed with breaking a record. Only reason he got on that train. I don’t suppose you know if it hit its intended top speed before it crashed?”
“I don’t know, I’m sorry, but, was there any particular kind of record your father was interested in, Madam?” asked Frank.
“Oh, just anything. He really just wanted his name in the book. He tried so many times. He wouldn’t have cared what it was for.”
“I don’t know whether to say this or not.” Frank stared at his feet.
“What is it?” asked Dad.
“It might be quite upsetting for you to hear," said Frank.
“Do you think he broke a record?” asked Mum.
“Well, in a way, yes.” Frank scratched his head and frowned.
“Oh, you have to tell us." Mum looked up at him. "Whatever is it is, please, any glimmer of good for him would help us feel better.”
“Well, if you’re sure.”
“Yes, we are.” Mum shuffled under the sheets.
“Well Madam, we think that your father had quite literally broken every bone in his body. You see, he survived long enough to get to the hospital, which no one else did, which, I suppose might also be some kind of record. And we had to take extensive x-rays to try to ascertain how badly injured he was, and the radiologist was stunned.” Frank sighed. “Some bones were broken more than once.”
Over the following weeks and months the story unfolded.
Grandpa had been the only one on board who survived long enough to make it to the hospital. That was the first world record of his that was officially recorded. He was the final survivor of the final jet powered train speed record attempt. The train itself had not broken the speed record.
It turned out that Roy Castle had interviewed Grandpa on camera just before the train left Redhill station and had later requested for him to be recorded as the oldest person ever to ride a jet powered train. The request was accepted.
During the crash he had broken every bone in his body. All 213 of them. Some more than once. And for one year he held the record for the most broken bones sustained by any one person. In 1975 Evel Knievel stole that particular claim to fame by recording every broken bone he had ever experienced, which totalled 433.
For seventeen minutes, though he never knew it, my grandpa was also the oldest living first time grandparent at 98. I still take comfort in the idea that he would have loved that fact.
He also took the record for being the oldest person ever to break a world record and, thanks to that one, for the most records broken by one person in one day. As morbid as they were.
. . .
I take another sip of Guinness and cast an eye over the landscape, as it becomes more like the city and less like the country. And I think of my grandpa, and the day he died, and the name I have as a result. The train pulls into Kettering, where my friend Jo should get on to meet me.
My phone rings.
“Hi Jo, I’m in carriage C – there are plenty of seats for a change.”
“On my way, Vicky.”
“Oi! No abbreviations today – not on my birthday.” I take Grandpa’s handwritten page of names from my pocket, handed to me by my Mum the first time she told me that story, and kept safe in a plastic wallet ever since. There is only one for a girl.
“Sorry – On my way Victoria, Roman Goddess of Victory,” Jo says.
We both laugh.
“That’s more like it! Just how Grandpa would have wanted.”