My younger readers won’t remember the great sequence of TV adverts for the UK Yellow Pages back in the 1980s. They usually revolved around someone who’d exhausted the shops in his home town making a phone call and getting just what he wanted. The voice-over used to say, ‘Good old Yellow Pages. We’re not just here for the nasty things in life, like a burst pipe or a blocked drain.’
I can still remember some of them: a young lad buying a Hornby signal box for his father’s model railway; a couple making plans to ‘replace’ their elderly gardener, only for his face to light up at the sight of a petrol-driven lawnmower; and a man searching for a Panama hat before he walked out to umpire a test match at Lord’s. And, of course, there was J. R. Hartley and his relentless quest for a copy of the long out of print Fly Fishing …
When I started in the book trade in the late 1980s, it used to be a regular occurrence for some joker to ring up (or more rarely, call in) and ask the hapless new starter or Saturday girl for a copy of this non-existent book. This was the era before CD-ROMs and the Internet, of course. British Books in Print was on microfiche – hundreds of pages of cross-referenced print, photographically reduced and reproduced on blue acetate slides about 6″ × 4″ in size.
Every month we’d get the updated version, which consisted of over a hundred of these slides, to be filed in a red A4 folder. The reader was the size of a large portable TV, with a sliding tray on which the slide would be mounted, and a screen on which the contents were projected. As you can imagine, looking up a particular book was time-consuming at best. Once you’d found the book, you’d have to look up the details of the publisher/distributor, which were on separate slides at the back of the folder. The whole process sounds hopelessly Twentieth Century now, doesn’t it?
[A digression: Our microfiche reader used to live on the cupboard behind our counter upstairs. Customer orders and reservations were kept on the shelves above, so that everything we needed was within easy reach. Too easy, as I found out one day. We had a girl named Siân doing work experience with us. I’d already teased Helen T. that I was going to try and seduce Siân before the week was out. However, I blew my chances entirely on the Thursday morning. I was serving a customer, and Siân was standing on a stool behind me, sorting out the reservation shelves. I reached backwards to switch the microfiche reader on, and planted my hand firmly on her arse. She squealed, the customer laughed, and I said, ‘Oh shit! Sorry, Siân!’ It was an honest mistake. At least when we went over to CD-ROMs, the worst that could happen was that the mouse would bungee jump off the counter now and again.]
Anyway, back to the story. In 1991, the sports publisher Stanley Paul decided to release a book for the Xmas market, entitled Fly Fishing: Memoirs of Angling Days and attributed to J. R. Hartley. It was the ideal stocking filler for a relative into fishing, and it sold by the bucket-load. The following Xmas, keen to repeat their success, they issued J. R. Hartley Casts Again. It didn’t sell as well as the first book, but it was still fairly respectable, outselling a lot of heavily hyped novels that year. Some time later, a gang of teenage boys came upstairs in the shop. Seeing me behind the counter, they decided to try and revive the old joke.
‘Have you got Fly Fishing by J. R. Hartley, mate?’ one of them asked.
‘Hang on, lads,’ I replied, ‘I’ll have a quick look.’
Instead of reaching for the microfiche, I left the safety of the counter and made my way to the Sport section. The books on fishing were on the boys’ blind side, and as I got there I could hear them chuckling behind the fixtures. And it was my lucky day. We had a copy of J. R. Hartley Casts Again on the shelf. I grabbed it and re-emerged onto the open shop floor. I held it up so that everyone could see it.
‘Sorry, fellers, we’ve sold out. But we’ve got the sequel.’
The boys swore quietly to each other, then made their excuses and left.
The moral of this story is encapsulated in an oft-repeated piece of advice from my old Biology teacher, Terry Smith: Never kid a kidder and never con a conman.