If there’s anyone you’d want on your team in a game of Trivial Pursuit, it’s Lord Acton of England.
Lord Acton (who prefers to be called just plain old Johnny) is what you might call a 21st-century Renaissance man. He’s a writer, a food lover, a self-described pig enthusiast and an all-round specialist in weird and little-known facts.
The 44-year-old British baron has written 13 books on a wide range of topics, from sausage-making and preserves to the history of money, comedy and hot air ballooning. His latest, soon to be released, is a spectator’s guide to the London 2012 Olympic Games, titled How to Watch the Olympics.
Mr. Acton is visiting Ontario this week, and on Friday will be opening this weekend’s fall fair in Acton, Ont., a town named after one of his forebears.
We reached Lord Acton in Acton:
I can’t say I’ve ever had the privilege of interviewing a lord before.
It must be very exciting for you.
How do people normally address you?
Johnny. It’s all fairly new to me. My father died less than a year ago.
I had an aunt who was married to an Italian prince, so she was called Princess Rospigliosi, but she used to say, “It’s a secret between me and the postman.” I kind of feel the same way.
What will you be doing at the Acton Fall Fair?
I’m apparently going to judge the Miss Acton competition, which is about the most exciting moment of my stay.
I’m also reading from my book [on sausage-making] See, one of things I do is I write books with a chef friend of mine, and he’s sort of illiterate and I can’t cook, but between us, we write what are hopefully nice cookbooks.
You’ve described yourself as a “pig enthusiast.” Can you explain?
I’m worried that’s going to be overstated, as in, I’ve had four pigs in my entire life. But yes, I love them. They amuse me to pieces. In England, I’m keen to keep the old, dying-out breeds alive, not least because they taste an awful lot better.
Do you actually eat the pigs you keep?
God, yeah. If you had your beloved pet murdered, the least you can do is eat it.
Do you name them then?
Yeah, because if you’ve got two at a time, even if you named them “A” and “B,” you’d still get to know them pretty darn well. No one would keep them if they weren’t eaten, and it’s all very sad, but pigs aren’t like humans. They’re not thinking, “I want to, when I’m grown up, have lots of piglets.” You know, they live for the moment. So in a way, it’s less awful than it would be taking you to the abattoir.
You’re also an expert of obscure information.
Basically, I’m a kind of professional fraud. I write about things I know nothing about. But I sort of believe in that. In other words, experts are not the right people to write about subjects because they can’t remember what it was like not to know all the stuff they know now. Writers should be the middleman between the experts and the general public.
What drives you to seek the obscure?
I’ve quite got a good retentive memory. I’m a handy person to have at a pub quiz, dare I say it myself. And I suppose I’m quite easily bored so I like new topics. If I don’t slightly amuse myself when I’m writing a book, I don’t suppose the reader would be very amused either.
I’m very keen on bringing the familiar back to life. If I can draw people’s attention to that bubble wrap was invented as a kind of wallpaper, it never looks quite the same again.
A Renaissance man approach to the world, I guess.
Yeah, I would have loved to have been around for the Renaissance. I don’t like too much specialization. I think then, you can’t see the wood from the trees. You’re too up close and you only know about fruit flies.
Can you tell me about your new book, How to Watch the Olympics?
First of all, everyone’s going to watch it on TV, so in a way, it’s something to help you get the most of it watching it on TV. It’s just striking how we all go nuts for all these sports every four years, but we pay no attention to them at all, most of us, the rest of the time. So there’s a bit of an asymmetry there between how interested we’re supposed to be and what we know about the sports. The mission is to get people to think, “Goodness, Central Asia comes to a standstill during the weightlifting. How extraordinary,” or “The streets are deserted in Copenhagen during women’s handball.” Again, it’s to bring the familiar to life.
What topic will you tackle next?
I’m going to address the matter of pigs and ham in a big way when I get back, and I’ll think about what to write next. But I’ve had a crazy year, and I need a bit of a breather.
This interview has been condensed and edited.