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John's website, www.wirksworth.org.uk was, as its name
might suggest, all about the parish of Wirksworth, Derbyshire,
some 150 miles north of London. I was heading south on the
M3 however, because while his website was devoted to
Wirksworth, he actually lived 240 miles away in the small and
sleepy town of Poole, or rather its smaller and sleepier
When I first laid eyes on John I thought I was about to meet
a giant but it turned out to be an optical illusion. He was
certainly a big man, his height exaggerated by a curl of Mr
Whippy ice cream hair that sat on top, giving him an extra
couple of inches. He was a bit broad in the beam these days
too, but he'd pulled off a real illusory masterstroke by marrying
a tiny wife and living in a bungalow. As I parked the car at
the foot of their drive, John, who was well over six feet tall and
Rosie, a poppet who can't have been much over five feet,
stepped outside to meet me and it really did look as though an
average-sized woman had stepped out of an average-sized
house with an abnormally large man. It's only when I got out
of the car and approached them that I realised the truth.
The two of them met when, as a young man, John had
placed an advert in a youth hostelling magazine soliciting a
cycling buddy for a trip round Ireland. Local girl Rosie had
answered his ad and off they'd gone. You have to admire them
both for that; its one hell of a first date.
John was eager to show me the two 'whacks he'd found so
he whisked me into their bedroom, a corner of which was
given over to a busy desk crammed with computer equipment.
For a moment I thought his computer was fitted with some
kind of antique monitor but the screen I was looking at wasn't
wired up to the computer, it was for viewing microfilm.
"Ah it's a beauty, isn't it?" said John, proud to own such a
"I thought only spies looked at microfilm", I said.
"Ah no, this is the hub of Wirksworth.org.uk", said John, and
then, rather cryptically he added, "it all started with the
"I'm getting very confused", I said to the man who wasn't a
giant, a spy or a Mormon.
"It all started when I decided to check my ancestors out...
well, everyone does that when they get to 50".
I made a mental note to clear my diary in 19 years' time.
"So, I went to the International Genealogical Index. It's run
by the Mormons".
"I see", I said. Not so cryptic now.
"Its all online", said John, "you should take a look at it. It's
"Ooo! Ha ha ha!"
The laughter came from behind us. I turned to find Rosie
bringing in a tray of tea and biscuits. The mere mention of
those three w's had been enough to raise Rosie's laughter. It
was a laugh that said, There he goes again! Him and his www's
him and his Internet! They may have shared many a bike ride,
but I got the disticnt impression that the surfing was probably
a solo affair. John Smiled and started again.
"It's www.familysearch.org!, he said. "So, I traced my family
back and it led to the town of Wirksworth. Well, I got as far
back as 1595 and I got interested in it".
He took his time and lowered his voice for the word
'interested', investing it with as much passion as he could. I
knew that he didn't really mean 'interested'; he meant
'obsessed'. It was a tone of voice I'd hear often that day.
"So I went to the Derbyshire Records Office and said, "Can
I get the Bishops Transcripts?" These are copies of the Parish
Registers made for the Bishop - you know, details of all the
baptisms and the burials and the weddings and so on. I got
them eventually and they're 400 years old
There it was again. He said '400 years old' as if he was
tasting a fine wine.
"Well, every time you rolled them out they'd get a bit more
damaged. I didn't like that at all. So I said to the Records
Office, "Look, I'll do you a deal." He paused for dramatic
effect, lowered his voice again, but raised one finger and two
eyebrows to compensate. "This changed my life for the next
I was half expecting John to tell me he really was a spy.
Maybe he was working for the county of Derbyshire, operating
across the border in dangerous territory like Nottingham, say,
or Mansfield. But he looked about the room, and then
explained the life-changing deal he'd struck.
'I said, "You photocopy them and send them to me and I
will transcribe them. I'll put them into a database".' And then,
savouring the words, enjoying the sound, Oo I love a database,
they fascinate me'.
Six months after doing the deal, John had transcribed the
Bishop's transcript, putting 50 years of Wirksworth - all the
births, deaths, marriages and shenanigans - online. And he
had found the whole community much more interesting than
just his own family tree. He'd become addicted.
'I got to know these people', he explained. 'I thought "Oh...
he's going out with her, is he? and so on... I did 1650 to 1700
in about a year and...well, I was hooked'.
Seventeenth-century Wirksworth had become John's soap
opera of choice and like any fan he wanted to know what
happened next. He'd wanted to know what the next series, the
eighteenth century, had in store. So John had gone back to the
Mormons and offered them a similar deal, which had allowed
him access to further Wirksworth information. Over three
years he spent 4000 hours filling up more of his beloved
databases. I wouldn't have been surprised if he'd also created
a database detailing the man hours he'd dedicated to his
Once he'd got through all that information he just hadn't
been able to stop and had managed to feed his habit by using
the ten-yearly censuses, all of which were making their way
from microfilm to website via John's keyboard. On the day we
met he was working his way through the 1891 census and by
the time you read this I dare say he'll be at the 1901 census or
beyond. A two-finger typist, he estimated that he'd now typed
over 6 million words. I was lucky that baptise and slurry
were among them.
The first googlewhack John showed me was Derailleurs Jetsam.
'Oh it was lovely',he said. I tried derailleurs flotsam and got
two hits. But the word 'flotsam' is only ever used in tandem
with 'jetsam' and I could see that one of the sites had spelled
jetsam wrong, so I knew that it had to be a 'whack and it was!'
'That really is lovely',I said, searching around the site for an
email address. It was a site that sold sporting books. It was
clearly based in America but I couldn't work out where exactly.
'So what does deraillerrs mean?' I asked, as I opened up an
email and started to write to my latest prospect.
'It's a cycling term', said John,'part of the gear mechanism'.
'Do you still ride?' I asked as I pressed send.
'No', said John, ruefully. 'I used to cycle a lot. I've cycled
across America, but I'm getting on a bit these days. I'm afraid
I gave up exercise but I forgot to give up eating.' he said,
patting his tummy playfully. 'Actually,' his voice fell to a
whisper, 'I'm supposed to be on a diet...but if you want to
have a curry later, it would be a good excuse.'
'That sounds like a great idea,' I said. 'Besides, I should be
celebrating: this is my longest chain of 'whacks so far. You're my
sixth in a row. For the first time, I'm passed the halfway point.'
'A curry it is then,' said John. 'Now, here's the other
googlewhack I found for you....Benn Bathysphere.'
'By the way,' I said, as the page loaded,'I think I'm hearing
things. I could swear you just said you'd cycled across America!'
'Twice', said John.
'I only heard it once.'
'No,' said John, 'I've cycled across America twice.'
'But it's massive!' I said. 'It takes long enough to fly across
it and I should know.'
'I've done Oregon to Virginia and California to Florida. I
really wanted to go and Rosie couldn't come,' said John, 'so the
first time I went I advertised for a buddy and I got ten replies
...actually, it was fourteen, but four of them were ladies and I
didn't want to get involved in that'
'Of course not,' I said,'you've got form.'
'So I went with this fellow, nice chap he was, and we had a
great time. We did about four and a half thousand miles and it
took us 66 days; the roads were good, the gradient was good;
it was amazing.'
'You see, the thing is,' he continued,'there's this company that
make these fantastic maps for cyclists with everything you might
want to know - history, weather, recommended routes and so on.
So before we went, I sat down and typed it all into a database...
'You really do love a database, don't you?'
'Oh I do. I really do,' said John. 'Well I printed them off on
strips of paper and attached them to my handlebars. Then you
can do all the navigating on the move. Brilliant.'
'Amazing,' I said, 'now, let's take a look at this googlewhack
'What's wrong?' asked John.
'I'm afraid Benn Bathysphere isn't a 'whack'. I felt like a vet
breaking bad news to a child about a beloved pet. 'You see,
benn isn't underlined so it's not in dictionary.com and in any
case, it leads to a wordlist. 'I'm really sorry,' I said,'I really am.'
'No, no,' said John, being very brave about the whole thing,
'that's fine.' He looked out of the window and composed himself.
'Benn Bathysphere is no good, but that's OK because I can find a new 'whack, can't I?'
'Of course you can,' I said, geeing him up, 'and it'll be just
as good, if not better.'
John began 'whack hunting and while he thought of random
words and tried them out, he regaled me with more tales of
travels and databases. His home was littered with souvenirs of
his travels, and so was his conversation.
'See that, Dave,' he'd say, pointing at something that looked
like a rock and was the size of two fists. 'That's the kidney
stone from a cow.'
'Have you ever seen one of these before?' he'd enquire,
holding up something long, straggly and dead. 'It's dried beef.
It's called "biltong"; it's like Kendal Mint Cake for meat eaters.'
'Never have an egg in Peru,' he'd advise.'It's too high up,
they can't boil it properly.'
I wasn't surprised to discover that a man who provided such
eclectic conversation made for a talented googlewhacker and
before long he'd discovered a replacement 'whack in the
shape of Yoyo Triptychs.
'Well done,' I said, delighted with the find. 'Now, let's take a
look at Chinese-art.com...'
The site was obviously concerned with Chinese art but it was
impossible to work out where it was based. It carried news about
Chinese artists living all over the world and links to galleries no
only in Beijing and Hong Kong and so on, but also in Paris,
Switzerland, San Frabcisco and New York, for example. One link
led to a gallery called Chinese Contemporary, which was located
just off Oxford Street in central London. The man responsible for
the site went by the distinctly un-Chinese name of Robert
Bernell. I hoped he worked at Chinese Contemporary, but more
importantly, wherever he was, I hoped he'd agree to meet me.
As I fired off the email, Rosie appeared in the doorway.
'How are you two boys doing?' she asked.
'It's going swimmingly,'said John.'Two lovely googlewhacks.'
'Absolutely,' I added, 'and do you know what? It's been such
a pleasure and this is now the longest chain I've had so I'd like
to celebrate. I don't know if the two of you like a curry?'
'Oh yes,'said John,'what a good idea.'
'You know you shouldn't,'said Rosie,'but seeing as we've
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