Review: Vivien Horler
Rapid Fire – Remarkable miscellany, by John Maytham (Tafelberg)
JOHN Maytham says he has “a magpie memory”, one that is attracted by bright, shiny facts that he stores in “the large and messy nest” of his memory.
Certainly anyone who listens to Maytham during his afternoon drive show on 567 Cape Talk radio is aware he knows almost everything, which is why his daily “Rapid Fire” segment is so compelling. You really want to beat him, and I think I have the question to do it.
He says in his preface (what he calls “The short bit before the proper book”) that originally the format of Rapid Fire was to award the prize to someone who could stump the team, but this often meant boring questions won prizes. “Does rubidium or strontium have a higher value on the table of valences?” Who cares, says Maytham.
So they changed the format to give the prize to the person asking the most interesting question. And then Maytham collected them, googled the answers (the listeners aren’t always right), and compiled this brilliant book. You have to hand it to the listeners – they came up with some astonishingly interesting questions.
How’s this – why do cats lie in the sun? At first it doesn’t seem specially interesting, but the answer is amazing. Turns out it’s not just for warmth. Like us, cats manufacture their own Vitamin D from sunlight. But their fur is too thick to allow the sun to reach the skin. So a cat’s skin produces an oil that is spread around the fur by grooming. This oil is broken down by the sun’s ultra-violet light into Vitamin D which the cats licks up when it grooms.
Most of Maytham’s research was done on the internet, but the question about how many holes there are in a Marie biscuit led him to buying two packs of biscuits (“I can’t believe I am confessing this,”) and then counting. He discovered an average of 19 holes a biscuit.
They are called docker holes and are there to allow steam out from the inside of the biscuit while baking. Then Maytham found another couple of delicious facts: the traditional way of counting docker holes is to spread butter on one biscuit, cover it with another, squeeze, and then count the number of “worms”.
Also the name: Marie biscuits were created in London in 1874 by the Peek Freans bakery to commemorate the marriage of the Duke of Edinburgh to the Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, who Maytham tells us was the Lady Di of her time.
The Cape Talk team have found that listeners don’t always have their answers right. Take the wellknown story about how President Kruger, who was having dinner with Queen Victoria, drank the water from his finger bowl, prompting the polite queen to do the same. Only trouble is, it’s not true – Kruger and the queen never met.
Another question involves the common platanna or African clawed frog. Why might you have found these frogs in doctors’ surgeries in the 1940s? I knew this one – they were used for the only reliable pregnancy tests available at the time. If you injected the frog with the urine of a pregnant woman, it would lay eggs.
The part that astounds me is this: Who came up with the idea? Why would you even think of injecting the urine of a pregnant woman into a frog? What other animals did they try this on? Maytham does not give us the answers to my questions, but he does say that 10s of thousands of platannas were exported from South Africa between the 1930s and 1950s, and later many were released into the wild.
Sadly it has recently been found they carried a fungus which is thought to be responsible for the serious decline and even extinction of nearly 250 amphibian species worldwide.
Another question: into what stretch of water in the world will no sea-going vessel venture because that would void its insurance conditions? The answer given by a listener was passing through the Knysna Heads. But was it true? Maytham contacted Lloyds of London and discovered it had been true once, but is no longer, thanks to improved technology.
This book is chock full of interesting stuff, and written with Maytham’s wry sense of humour. It’s a real delight.
Now for my test-the-team question: we all know why polar bears don’t eat penguins (because they live in different hemispheres). But where do penguins live in the wild north of the equator?
Bet that’s stumped you, Mr Maytham. But then again, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it hasn’t.
*This review also appears in Weekend Argus on Sunday on November 5.