The unbearable bookshop of laughter and forgetting

`Would it be fair to say that you do not have total respect for the British reading public?'
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The Independent Culture
YESTERDAY I brought you an extract from a case in the High Court in which the BBC is suing an author called Geoffrey Winthrop. Geoffrey Winthrop has written a book called That Book Which Was Read On Radio 4 at 9.45 All Last Week.

The book in question has never been read on Radio 4 and is in fact a novel about the death of Salman Rushdie, but the BBC's contention is that the title has been cleverly designed to sell the book under false pretences, so that when people go into a bookshop and ask for that book which was read on Radio 4 at 9.45 all last week, they will get Winthrop's book and not the one they really want.

Confused? You won't be after a further extract from this riveting trial...

Counsel: I would now like to call a bookseller to give evidence from the retail end of things. Call Mr Bertrand Hammer.

Witness: No need. I am here.

Counsel: You are Mr Bertrand Hammer, a bookseller?

Witness: I have many, many books. You want a book? I will sell it to you.

Counsel: Of course, things are never that easy, are they , Mr Hammer? Very often people come in and say they want a book, and you say, We can get it for you.

Witness: Yes, that is true. Of course, first I try to persuade them to buy something we have got and change their mind about the book they first wanted! If I can get them to buy something by Beryl Bainbridge when they only came in for a TV cookbook, I consider I have done well. Very well. Very well indeed. In fact, I have never managed it.

Counsel: Quite so. But you can always order a book if someone really wants it?

Witness: Yes, on two conditions.

Counsel: Which are?

Witness: Firstly, that is in print and available. Secondly, that the customer can remember the name.

Counsel: Good heavens! Do customers sometime ask for books without knowing the name?

Witness: In my experience, most customers can remember very little about the book they want. They come in and say something like, "I want to get the book they reviewed on that programme the other night, by the man with the bow-tie." They can never remember the programme or the name of the man.

Counsel: But the bow-tie is a clue?

Witness: Not necessarily. It might point to Frank Muir or Robin Day, or it might not. The last time someone asked me for a book by a man with a bow-tie, it turned out to be a half-memory of A J P Taylor.

Counsel: And was the book he wanted actually by A J P Taylor? Witness: No. It was by D J Taylor.

Counsel: And who is he?

Witness: I have no idea. I just sell books. I don't read them.

Counsel: Would it be fair to say that you do not have total respect for the British reading public?

Witness: No. It would be fair to say I have a deep contempt for them. Most people buy books because they have seen the TV programme first. Or because they have heard them talked about. Sometimes this is combined. I have had several customers buying Jane Austen under the impression she had won the Booker Prize.

Counsel: Which she hadn't?

Witness: Not recently.

Counsel: Have you been asked much for that book which was read on Radio 4 at 9.45 all last week?

Witness: Yes, I have been. In fact, we've sold out of it. But I can easily get it for you by Monday. Or if you can't wait till then, you might be interested in the new Beryl Bainbridge, which is pretty hot stuff...

Counsel: Of the people who asked for that book which was read on Radio 4 at 9.45 all last week, how many do you think wanted the Geoffrey Winthrop book, and how many were asking for the other?

Witness: You mean Me and Hitch by Evan Hunter?

Counsel: Do I?

Witness: Yes. That is the book which was read on Radio 4 last week. As an account of working with Hitchcock, I thought it very thin and uninformative. But lots of people asked for it.

Counsel: How do you know they weren't asking for Winthrop's book?

Witness: Because they wouldn't have referred to it by name. They wold have said: "Have you got that book in which the novelist dies, you know, the fatwa one, the one who looks like Alan Yentob?"

Judge: I hate to intervene, but I have a horrible feeling that Mr Hammer has never been sworn in properly.

Counsel: Good heavens, you're right. Mr Hammer, can you lay your hands on the Bible?

Witness: Not right now, but I can get you one by the weekend. How about a second-hand Koran?

The case continues, though not in this column