The great second places

Mark Mason celebrates the people and things forgotten by history for not quite finishing first

Ever heard of Jürg Marmet and Ernst Schmied? Of course you haven’t – they were only the second team to climb Mount Everest. So Hillary and Tenzing get all the glory, while the Swiss duo are filed under ‘N’ for ‘Nearly’. Their story – including the detail that they tested some of their equipment in a butcher’s cold-storage room – remains untold. Or rather it has until now. My new book, The Book of Seconds, is a celebration of the people and things that didn’t (quite) win…

Massachusetts by the Bee Gees: second song played on Radio 1

The Move got a place in the history books with ‘Flowers in the Rain’. But The Bee Gees got their first UK number one with ‘Massachusetts’. They had never actually been to the state – the song was written in New York’s St Regis Hotel. The day the song topped the charts, Robin Gibb was involved in the Hither Green rail crash, one of the UK’s worst ever (49 killed).

Oxford University vs Wanderers, 1873: second FA Cup final

One of Oxford’s players rejoiced in the name Walpole Vidal, and in the nickname ‘the Prince of Dribblers’. Back then the team that had just scored got to kick off at the restart – this had once allowed Vidal to score a hat-trick without the other team touching the ball.

David Edwards: second person to win £1m on ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’

Unlike Judith Keppel, who went on to star in Eggheads, Edwards shunned the limelight, carrying on working as a teacher. His pupils used to say: ‘Give us a tenner, sir.’

James Agate (Getty)

Delaware: second­ smallest US state

Delaware might not be as petite as Rhode Island, but it has a section of boundary, centred 12 miles from the courthouse in the city of New Castle, which is the only circular part of any US state boundary.

James Agate: second castaway on ‘Desert Island Discs’

One of the theatre critic’s choices was ‘By the Sleepy Lagoon’ – which happens to be the show’s theme tune. It was inspired by a view across a bay towards, er, Bognor Regis. The BBC added the seagull cries themselves. Then, some years later, they changed the seagulls to tropical birds, as these were more accurate for a desert island. You’d think the sort of person who writes to the BBC would applaud such attention to detail – but no, there were complaints, so the seagulls were reinstated.

Henri Cornet: second winner of the Tour de France

You think the Tour is controversial now? Try 1904, when fans tried to jeopardise rival riders’ chances by cutting down trees to block the road, spreading nails on the tarmac and – taking as direct an approach as possible – simply beating the riders up. During the penultimate stage Cornet fell victim to nails on the road. As mechanical assistance was forbidden he had to ride the last 25 miles on two flat tyres.

1836: second Boat Race

A tricky event back then – the sliding seat hadn’t yet been invented, though crews did sometimes grease the backsides of their trousers. The 1836 race was the debut of the ‘dark blue/light blue’ tradition – Oxford wore dark blue because that was the colour of Christ Church College (which provided four of their crew), while Cambridge went with light blue, possibly because that was the colour of Eton, where several of their crew had studied.

‘Tenderloin’: second talking movie

Made in 1928 (the year after ‘The Jazz Singer’), the film was directed by Michael Curtiz. Born in Hungary, he had a successful career (which included directing Casablanca), but never entirely conquered the English language. During The Charge of the Light Brigade, when the action called for riderless horses to appear, Curtiz shouted: ‘Bring on the empty horses!’ David Niven (who later used this phrase as the title of his memoirs) burst into hysterics, as did co-star Errol Flynn. Curtiz rounded on them: ‘You people!’ he yelled. ‘You think I know fuck nothing! Well, let me tell you, I know fuck all!’

The Book of Seconds, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, is out now


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