Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Myth busting

Occasionally a news story comes along that doesn't quite ring true, and for me one example was - from the start - the claim by Buster Martin to be the country's oldest worker, famously refusing to take a day off on his 100th birthday. Sequels to this included beating off a gang of muggers, making a (musical) record, writing for FHM magazine, and running the London Marathon at the age of 101. It was at the latter hurdle that things started to unravel, with Guinness World Records refusing to recognise Martin's claim to be the oldest person to complete the event, as he could not - or would not - provide proof of his date of birth.

Martin claims he was born France in 1906 and raised in a British orphanage, so while he has a certificate of naturalisation, he was no birth certificate. The expert hired by Guinness to verify his age turned up the fact that while having a Medical Card giving his year of birth as 1906, the NHS also had a record of it actually being 1913, meaning that his celebrated "100th" birthday was actually his 93rd, and that he ran the Marathon at 94, not 101. No mean feat, but not a record.

Following the Marathon debacle, The Guardian's Patrick Barkham made a commendable effort in trying to pin Martin's age down, interviewing the man himself. Barkham conceded that, "perhaps the biggest weapon in Buster's battle to prove he is 101 is that retentive mind. The most striking thing is not the wit of the remarkable stories he tells, but their precision. Buster has a mania for dates." He is entirely consistent in the ages and dates as regards his birth, his move to London, his marriage (in France, hence no marriage certificate, although his age of 14 and his bride's of 13 conflicts with French law at the time), joining the British Army and specifically the Grenadier Guards, when he left it with the rank of Regimental Sergeant Major, when he "retired" and then resumed work three months later, and so on. Martin's emphatic and consitent precision seems stronger than any solid proof, even if it is about events that can't actually be corroborated, but it may unwittingly be his downfall, via a seemingly barely significant detail mentioned in passing by Barkham:
He's sipping a pint of Newcastle Brown Ale with chunks of orange, and explains that this habit was acquired during an army training exercise in Egypt. "It was my 21st birthday. 1927."
If Martin was born in 1906, he would indeed have turned 21 in 1927, but if he was born in 1913, he would have reached that milestone age in 1934. The question, then, is whether any battalions of the Grenadier Guards were actually in Egypt in either of those years, and according to this page their deployments were as follows:
1st Bn.:
1925 London, Wellington Barracks
1927 Aldershot 1 Bde
1929 London, Tower 4 Bde
1931 Egypt
1933 England, Warley
1934 Aldershot 4 Bde
1935 Windsor 4 Bde

2nd Bn.:
1925 England, Aldershot 1 Bde
1927 London, Chelsea
1929 England, Aldershot 1 Bde
1931 London, Tower 4 Bde
1932 London, Wellington Barracks
1933 England, Windsor
1934 England, Aldershot 1 Bde
1935 London

3rd Bn.:
1924 England, Aldershot
1929 London 4 Bde
1933 Egypt
1935 England, Aldershot 1 Bde
Clearly 1927 is a non-starter, as all three battalions were in England in that year, and the same applies to 1934 for the 1st and 2nd Bns. This leaves the 3rd Bn., which was indeed in Egypt in 1934. Of course, if he was born in 1906 and was in the 1st Bn., he would have spent his 26th birthday in Egypt (1932), or - depending on the date of deployment - his 25th and/or 27th in the years either side; or if he was in the 3rd Bn., he would have turned 28 in that country (1934), or 27 and/or 29, but that would depend on his famously precise memory being completely wrong as regards one of the "significant" birthdays a person has. Or maybe he got his regiment wrong, but that seems unlikely considering its wide reporting and the absence of any other named unit.

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