The mission: Matthew Sweet tries to give away copies of Simon Bates's autobiography. Scarily, one man takes two
Saturday 22 August 1998
Roland Barthes and Alexandra
Bastedo, his little eyes twinkling from behind an enormous pair of Reactolite Rapides. Simon Bates, My Tune: an Autobiography, Virgin Books, pounds 14.99. Or in this case, Bargain Books, 99p. But was it possible to give the book away? This was the object of my mission. And after buying 25 copies, I will now be able to ask for haemorrhoid cream at the chemist in basso profondo. "You'll need a box for those," ventured the shop assistant. "Are you in the fan club?" she enquired, as I staggered out on to the street with 16lb of Batesiana. "Is there one?" I asked, brightly.
The title, of course, refers to Simes's "Our Tune" slot on Radio 1, in which listeners sent in accounts of their private miseries and innermost torments, and urged him to read them out on air to 11 million listeners. In his Hush Puppies-and-brown-Dralon voice, he would retell stories of Strindbergian agony, his narration souped up by the "Love Theme" from Zefferelli's Romeo and Juliet: "Jean died of bowel cancer on Christmas Eve, but Gavin knew in his heart that she was a special kind of lady. And now here's 'The Final Countdown' by Europe." That was the kind of thing. It was the last word in coffee-time lachrymosity, and a broadcasting phenomenon.
Unfortunately, My Tune was less successful. It's not a terrible book, exactly. Its author comes across as a likeable man at ease with his own lack of obvious talents. "I have never been, nor want to be credible," he says, touchingly, on page 17. His story is about as interesting as you would expect from a man who's spent most of his professional life playing Crystal Gale records in a windowless room.
As for getting rid of these books, two possible strategies presented themselves. I could try the Hare Krishna method, and stand outside the Virgin Megastore making quiet advances towards impressionable types. Or I could walk up to Oxford Circus and hawk my wares with the counterfeit perfume sellers. I tried the noisy method first, laying my cardboard box over the top of a litter bin, holding two copies of the book above my head, and going into barrow-boy mode - being careful to make that Chas and Dave noise at the end of every sentence.
Get your complimentary Simon Bates autobiographies-ah. Completely free of charge-ah. There was no response to this. So I went into more detail. I assured passers-by they would gasp at the story of how he was accused of knocking a "lady newsreader" unconscious while having sex with her in the bath. They would laugh at his side-splitting anecdotes about Tommy Vance and Ed "Stewpot" Stewart.
After an hour, I hadn't a single taker. And not too much eye contact, either. It was time to try the transcendental sales technique of the Baghwan. So I popped down to the Tottenham Court end of Oxford Street and scanned the streets for people who looked like they might tick the "don't know" box on forms. "Hello," I beamed, at a likely candidate. "Would you like a free book?" No reaction. But after 20 attempts, a friendly looking Dutch tourist finally acknowledged my existence.
"Is it Vishnu, or something?" she asked.
No, it's Simon Bates. The popular disc jockey.
"Is he a cult?"
Well I've heard it said ...
"What's the catch?"
You have to promise to read it.
"OK, I'll take one."
After this first success, I managed to find homes for a further 18. Even a few native English speakers agreed to take a copy. A man in a T-shirt - bearing a picture of someone sticking his head up his own anus, exclaiming "I know that curry's in here somewhere" - walked off with two. Some of them smiled. Some of them promised to read it. Some of them, I think, might even have meant it. It was like the holy light of Krishna Consciousness breaking in upon me. I probably imagined it, but above the traffic noise, I thought I heard the "Love Theme" from Romeo and Juliet.
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