Notes on...

Second best: Why runners up are more interesting than those who come first

22 September 2018

9:00 AM

22 September 2018

9:00 AM

Who was the second prime minister? Everyone knows Robert Walpole was the first. Firsts get all the fame and glory. But what about the poor seconds, elbowed into the shadows of history? Isn’t it time they were given some love? Step forward, the Earl of Wilmington, PM from 1742 to 1743. Let us celebrate the fact that his country house in Warwickshire appeared as a monastery in Carry On Camping — and was the inspiration for Croft Manor, Lara’s childhood home in the Tomb Raider games.

Likewise, no one knows very much about James Garfield, the second US president to be assassinated. I certainly didn’t until I researched him for my new book, The Book of Seconds. I didn’t know that he could write in Latin with one hand and, simultaneously, in Greek with the other. I didn’t know that he took weeks to die: a bullet remained lodged in his body, and Alexander Graham Bell invented a metal detector to find it. He failed, but only because the doctors incorrectly thought the bullet was on Garfield’s right side and wouldn’t let Bell use it on the left.

The ultimate second is Apollo 12. Once Neil and Buzz had done their thing, no one cared about Pete Conrad and Alan Bean. But the pair were far more interesting than their predecessors. On the way to the moon they danced weightlessly to ‘Sugar Sugar’ by the Archies. Alan Bean left his silver Nasa badge on the lunar surface, knowing his mission had earned him a gold one. Pete Conrad ended up doing an American Express advert based on the fact that no one recognised him. It made him more famous than he’d become by walking on the moon.


Some seconds seem particularly unfair. Peter Norman won silver in the 200 metres at the 1968 Mexico Olympics – but all anyone remembers is Tommie Smith (gold) and John Carlos (bronze) giving the black power salute on the podium. Yet it was Norman who, when Carlos forgot his gloves, suggested they each wear one of Smith’s pair. That’s why in the famous picture Smith is lifting his right arm and Carlos his left.

Other seconds, however, seem content with their anonymity. AC/DC’s Brian Johnson speaks of the band deliberately staying ‘below the radar’, and always wears his cap pulled well down. That’s why you probably don’t know that Back in Black is the second best-selling album ever (behind Thriller). The bell that opens the LP was made to order. The band had tried recording the one in Loughborough’s war memorial tower, but whenever it sounded pigeons flew off and ruined the take.

Second-largest island, after Greenland? That would be New Guinea, whose main language is Tok Pisin, known as New Guinea Pidgin. It has some wonderful expressions. ‘Hair’ is gras bilong het (‘head grass’), while a helicopter is magimiks bilong Yesus, or ‘Jesus’s Magimix’. When Prince Charles visited in 2012 he introduced himself as nambawan pikinini bilong misis kwin — ‘number one child of Mrs Queen’.

So seconds can hold all sorts of wonder. Saturn, for example, might not be as big as Jupiter. But it’s the only planet that’s less dense than water. Which means that, were you able to find a bath big enough, Saturn would float in it.

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