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Distinctively odd

How to Avoid Big Ships
A new compendium of titles celebrates the weird and wonderful...
Greek postmen, the history of marmalade and opportunities to widen the uses of straw: it seems there is no book too odd to get into print.

For the past 30 years, the Bookseller magazine has awarded a prize to the oddest book title it can find. The first ever winner was Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice

Mind-boggling as that is, it is far from the strangest. Now the top prize has been won by the 1996 magnum opus Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers, published by the Hellenic Philatelic Society and edited by Derek Willan.

In past years, Today listeners have been inspired by these curiosities. Last year, Tim Sanders wrote a stunning fictional opening to the book title How Green Were the Nazis?

Now he's put pen to paper to pay tribute to the heroic Hellenic posties.


This is a terrific book and the perfect companion volume to The Greek Urban Postmen and their Nefarious Practices in the Parthenon Sorting Rooms.

I never travel without either of them.

Two cancellation numbers are particularly noteworthy: 87236

This was the number used by rural postman, Dimitri Vassilikos, to cancel the stamps on all mail routed through the Elassona post office in Northern Thessalonika.

After he died, aged 87, 17 bags of undistributed letters were discovered in his Attic attic. It transpired that Dimitri had never actually delivered a letter in his life, preferring to sit at his kitchen table all day, drinking ouzo and cancelling the stamps on the letters.
Frontspiece Greek Rural Postmen
From the cover of Greek Rural Postmen

He did this because he feared that his feckless sons would discover the hidden mail, steam off the stamps and use the proceeds to go to Mykonos, an island to which they were unaccountably attracted. But by then the damage to the local community had been done. This is why the mail-less inhabitants of Elassona are known to this day as "the isolated ones".


The cancellation number printed over an ancient Greek stamp featuring the head of the Persian despot Xerxes - clearly a forgery, which wrongly anticipated the outcome of the battle of Marathon.

Seventeen bags of undistributed letters were discovered in his Attic attic

Tradition has it that Persian army intelligence tricked Stavros Philippides, a postman attached to the Royal Athenian Mail Service, into agreeing to deliver postcards to the Greek army positioned on the field of Marathon. Each postcard was printed with the message: "Life too Spartan? Throw down your arms and come to Persepolis, where countless virgins await you!" .

Unfortunately, Stavros, in the time-honoured tradition of mailmen over the world, delivered the cards in error to the Persian army, which immediately vacated the field of battle and headed for home. His mail van having broken down, Stavros had to run the 26 miles back to the central post office in Athens with the letter informing the city of the famous victory.

We want to give listeners a chance to construct their own stories, inspired by the titles which have won every year. Send us your opening paragraphs using the postform below.

The Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year

1978: Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice (University of Tokyo Press)
1979: The Madam as Entrepreneur: Career Management in House Prostitution (Transaction Press)
1980: The Joy of Chickens (Prentice Hall)
1981: Last Chance at Love: Terminal Romances
1982: Population and Other Problems (China National Publications)
1983: The Theory of Lengthwise Rolling (MIR)
1984: The Book of Marmalade: Its Antecedents, Its History and Its Role in the World Today (Constable)
1985: Natural Bust Enlargement with Total Power: How to Increase the Other 90% of Your Mind to Increase the Size of Your Breasts (Westwood Publishing Co)
1986: Oral Sadism and the Vegetarian Personality (Brunner/Mazel)
1987: No Award
1988: Versailles: The View From Sweden University of Chicago Press)
1989: How to Shit in the Woods: An Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art (Ten Speed Press)
1990: Lesbian Sadomasochism Safety Manual (Lace Publications)
1991: No Award
1992: How to Avoid Huge Ships (Cornwell Maritime Press)
1993: American Bottom Archaeology (University of Illinois Press)
1994: Highlights in the History of Concrete (British Cement Association)
1995: Reusing Old Graves (Shaw & Son)
1996: Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers (Hellenic Philatelic Society)
1997: The Joy of Sex: Pocket Edition (Mitchell Beazley)
1998: Development in Dairy Cow Breeding and Management: and New Opportunities to Widen the Uses of Straw (Nuffield Farming Scholarship Trust)
1999: Weeds in a Changing World (British Crop Protection Council)
2000: High Performance Stiffened Structures (Professional Engineering Publishing)
2001: Butterworths Corporate Manslaughter Service (Butterworths)
2002: Living With Crazy Buttocks (Kaz Cooke - Penguin)
2003: The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories (Kensington Publishing)
2004: Bombproof Your Horse (J A Allen)
2005: People Who Don't Know They're Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It (Gary Leon Hill - Red Wheel/Weiser Books)
2006: The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification (Harry N Abrams)
2007: If You Want Closure In Your Relationship, Start With Your Legs (Simon & Schuster US)

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The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.

Disappointed to see that my favourite bedside reading, More Harvest Festival Dramas from Tibet by Marion H Duncan, 1967, from The Mitre Press has never made the list... Yes, it was the sequel to Marion's earlier book and, yes, you will remember her other seminal works, The Yangtze and the Yak and Customs and Superstitions of Tibetans.

martin hedges, London UK

I am the Editor of the Archival Edition of the London Philatelist, the Journal of the Royal Philatelic Society London. After your piece on Greek Rural Postmen I searched to see if we had a review of the book. Here it is:

Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers, by Derek Willan (ed.); published 1994 by the Hellenic Philatelic Society of Great Britain, 12 Bell Lane, Hendon, London NW4 2AD; A4, card covers, 76 + iv pages, 20, ISBN 0-9509461-3- 3.

This volume (Publication 4 in the HPSGB series) is essentially a super listing of all the Postmen's cancellation numbers, ranging from 1 to 1195, with 1 or more (as many as 8) relevant types appropriate to that number being given.

There are just 5 pages of text and illustration, but this seems to be quite sufficient to explain the Rural Post system, which was inaugurated in 1911. Earliest and latest dates reported are given, together with additional dates and special comments. It is all most competently done, and perhaps the only thing missing is an alphabetical list of basic post offices (to which the rural postmen were attached) with all relevant cancellation numbers. G.E.B.

The review is from January 1995

Dr Geoffrey Eibl-Kaye, Winchester, England

Sad as it might be, I actually bought the 1989 award winner as a present for a friend after reading a review in New Scientist.
Jenny , England

Can I point out that a search for the book 'bombproof your horse' on Amazon also recommends the *related title* 'fancy coffins to make yourself' -- I nearly choked on my tea.
Ruth Griffiths, Wirral

In reference to the wonderful self-help volume 'If you want closure in your relationship, start with your legs' surely there is no need to buy the book with such sound advice like that in the title! Brilliant.
Vanilla Mariposa, St. Albans

I too have the 1989 winner and very useful it is too. Having looked at the list I think I will get a copy of "How to Avoid Huge Ships" as there are many of them in the Milford Haven. Never actually hit one yet, but it's been close on occasions!
Mike Evans, Narberth, Pembrokeshire

Whilst the two following titles are not of books - they are journal titles found in a directory many many years ago - they still afford me some amusement. One was "Pig Hysterectomies" and the other was "Grinding Improvements"
Chris Catlin, London, U.K.

As a stamp collector I am delighted to see the hobby win the award. If anyone wants a book guaranteed to cure insomnia I recommend "The Admiral Issue of Canada" by Marler (a book on a Canadian stamp issue).
Ernest Payne, Hamilton Ontario Canada

I just found this article and was pleasantly surprised. My stepfather wrote the 2004 winner, "Bombproof Your Horse". Bombproofing is a strange term that refers to training your horse not to be spooked by loud noises, moving objects, obstacles, etc.
Brian, Ellicott City, USA

Not many people realise how many horses there are on the Greek Islands, nor how extensive is the literature devoted to them...
Richard Howland-Bolton, Plano TX United States

Searching on these titles is definitely an amusing way to while away a Friday afternoon. I also came across: "Knitting with Dog Hair: Better a Sweater from a Dog You Know Than a Sheep You'll Never Meet."
Karen, New Malden, UK

I saw an amazing book in a shop window in France: "Comment savoir si ton mec est l'anti-christe, et, si oui, faut-il le plaquer?" or "How to tell if your bloke is the Anti-Christ and, if so, should you dump him?" Should really have bought it I suppose, just in case...
Sarah Potter, Cambridge, U.K

I must recommend: "The Wrench - it's application in fussball and beyond." A classic.
Drex Bezzler, Howden, UK

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