Don't Quote Me! (Well, just a little bit's all right...)

Yesterday I found myself in a British Heart Foundation shop in Ripon doing a bit of pre-Internet, retro ego-surfing. What's that? Let me explain...

As you'll know, high street charity shops are the book world's equivalent of Battersea Dogs' Home, full of all those unloved volumes their owners couldn't quite bring themselves to send to landfill or dump by the motorway. I am drawn to charity shops like a fly to fresh paint and, as my family will attest, just as hard to remove. Ironically, the saddest section of secondhand books in these shops is always that labelled 'Humour'.

I always check it out with a slight sense of trepidation. I'm sort of relieved if none of my books are in there, as well as sort of very slightly disappointed, especially if instead there are large numbers of anthologies of humorous quotations.

Many of these anthologies are compiled by a person called Rosemarie Jarski (Russian for 'Jar', one presumes) who has been including several lines of mine in her books ever since my Dictionary for Our Time began appearing in The Oldie magazine back in the 1990s. She is not alone in this, and I'm sure it's all perfectly legal, but as a freelance writer it is a curious experience to encounter your work for sale in someone else's best-selling book when the shop has failed to stock any copy of one of your own.

So how does this explain yesterday in Ripon? Well, pre-Internet ego-surfing is simply a grandiose sounding term for checking for my name in the index. Flatteringly, if it is there at all, it is often between Lynn Barber and that other great feminist icon Ronnie Barker. If I find my name, I then shuffle through the pages to see which lines of mine have been included. Usually it is one or both of two gags that have been widely diffused across many websites: 'An encyclopaedia is a system for collecting dust in alphabetical order' and 'Popcorn is the last area of the movie business where good taste is still a concern.'

Of course, it's far better to be quoted than not at all, so I always check any new anthology I come across. There was an unfamiliar anthology in that shop in Ripon yesterday, only it had nothing of mine in it. (Not good enough for them, hey?)

As I exited the shop I remembered that years ago I had done much the same thing with all the brand new humour books in the Borders on Oxford Street in London. (Borders? That shows how long ago it was!) There I had found my name in the index of an huge American anthology of funny quotes called Uncle John's Bathroom Reader (just one of a range of titles produced for the smallest library in the home).

As I recall, the index said something like 'Barfield, Mike, page 1047'. Intrigued to see what line of mine Uncle John had deemed fit for inclusion, I began turning the pages of this very thick book. Page 437, page 673, page 894 - and so on. Pawing through the pages eventually brought me right back to the very page I was already on: page 1047. That's right. My only mention in the whole book was in the index, and they had indexed that. You have to admire their thoroughness.

Hedgehogs: A Prickly Subject

Yesterday, while clearing a space in the alleyway that runs down the side of our house, I happened to peer inside a blue plastic bag that I presumed contained scraps of tree bark for use as kindling. It did, but that wasn't all. It was also home to a sleeping hedgehog. The shock was somewhat one-sided, as the hedgehog remained soundly asleep during our encounter, even during its brief journey through the air to a safer spot a few yards further along.

Once the shock had passed, my first thought was that the hedgehog was dead, a sad victim of illiteracy - hedgehogs, like so many wild animals, being unable to fully comprehend those safety warnings most plastic bags carry about the dangers of suffocation. (Macabre thought, but I wonder if they also have them on bodybags?) Luckily I could detect signs of shallow breathing under the thorny thicket of its spines. (Note to self: Moisturise! Moisturise!)

Now, I happen to like hedgehogs. I think a garden with a hedgehog is blessed, though my wife is slightly less enthusiastic given the results of their nightly foraging through her flowerpots. However, as with so many things in life, it's often about context, and it has to be admitted that the charm of a hedgehog is markedly reduced when its setting is a scruffy plastic bag in an even scruffier alleyway. The effect was like encountering Mrs. Tiggywinkle cidered-out on a bench on the Embankment: The hedgehog: nature's rough-sleeper. When one remembers the ticks and fleas that are rumoured to be rife in and between their spines, the comparison seems even more apt.

This morning I was relieved to find that the hedgehog had moved on. Hopefully it's found somewhere more upmarket, like a cardboard box. Maybe even one from Waitrose. For me, 'Hedgehog in a carrier bag' sounds just a tad too much like something from the Modern Romany Cookbook, or Heston Blumenthal's kitchen.

Older readers may remember the 1980s vogue for hedgehog-flavoured crisps. Of course, questions were immediately asked about their method of manufacture: 'How do you make a hedgehog crisp?' Answer: 'Greatly overcook it.'


James Naughtie's Guilty Pleasure

Radio Four's coverage of the Royal Wedding has been hilarious, more for the uncomfortable, embarrassed tone of the presenters than for the content. Highlight so far has been James Naughtie's 'throw' to Jonathan 'Aggers' Agnew, slumming it amongst a crowd of onlookers outside the Abbey. I don't know if Aggers has kids of his own, but any chance of a Christmas job as a department store Santa has probably evaporated after demonstrating his sensitive way with juveniles. Interviewing a small child in the crowd, Aggers asks: 'And why are you here today?' Small child: 'Not sure,' followed by a long pause. Aggers: 'Oh, he's dried. That's no good.' Undeterred Aggers then moves onwards to quiz another hapless member of the public, a grown-up this time. Same question, 'Why are you here today?' Another slight pause, then the hesitant response: 'I was made to come.' Two cheers for the happy couple! Read More...

Apparently: Hello

Hello and warm greetings from North Yorkshire, where I now live. Yorkshire people frequently refer to their home territory as 'God's Own County'. Which to me - a Leicestershire 'woolly-back' - naturally begs the question, 'What might be Satan's?' Essex?

Not being Yorkshire born and bred and, by default, not thick in t'arm and hopefully similarly slender in t'ead, 'God's Own County' is just the sort of strange claim that immediately sets me considering the extended implications. Is the claim a 'Holy Trinity' sort of thing'? Perhaps so - Yorkshire nowadays being three entities in one: North, South and West. (Of these, I suspect South Yorkshire would be the Holy Ghost, being the least Northern and therefore less solid and more see-through than the other two.)

Why the East Riding of Yorkshire does not have its own county remains to me a mystery. There is of course such a thing as Humberside - though that sounds oddly like a crime category beloved of the writers of police TV dramas. 'Charge him with three counts of slattery and one of Humberside.'

With my 'Apparently...' hat on, the following descriptions for other English counties spring to mind: Lancashire - Dodd's Own County; East Sussex - Mods' Own County, Toyland - Nod's Own County. And there the trail runs cold. Stretching the idea a little, perhaps we could call Grimsby 'Cod's Own City', but then I'm not sure it does have city status. Another cartoon idea bites the dust.... Read More...