The poor box and the poor anthologist

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The Independent Online
HAVE you noticed that anthologists have been getting it in the neck recently? I suppose I should say that we anthologists have been getting it in the neck recently, because I also have brought out an anthology, of jazz writing, thus adding to the piles of anthologies that people are objecting to.

I didn't bring it out personally, of course. A company called HarperCollins brought it out. I know what you're thinking: how can I trust a publishing firm that puts a capital letter in the middle of its name and thus obviously cannot spell? And I see your point. Only InterCity is allowed to do that. InterCity, and Scotsmen called MacDonald.

I seem to have wandered from my point, which is that we anthologists supposedly have it too easy. Easy? Do people have any conception of how long it takes to get together a team of cheap researchers, out-of-work actors and out-of-date hairdressers, show them an extract of the kind you want in the book and then leave it to them to get cracking, looking for the material and getting permission for it and so on?

Hours and hours, that's how long. AND you have to keep an eye on them from time to time, to see how everything is shaping up, and to resist their constant pleas for payment.

I was helped considerably in my task by the thought that Evelyn Waugh was on my side. You'd think Waugh would have been against people who went around culling stuff, especially his stuff, for anthologies, but not a bit of it. Here is a letter written by him to a man who had asked him to let him have an extract for an anthology he was working on.

'To Rupert Croft-Cooke, 20 January 1948

Dear Sir,

You were wrongly informed that I have an aversion to anthologists.

I should be proud to be represented in your forthcoming collection. I don't want any money for myself. Will you take the eight guineas round to the nearest Roman Catholic church and pop it anonymously in the poor box?

Yours faithfully

Evelyn Waugh'

Oh, that all writers behaved so nobly when approached for permission to use their bits, was my reaction when I read this. I had just started work on the anthology, and it was sticky going. Or so my researchers told me.

Then I had a brilliant idea. I would assume that all writers were as noble as Evelyn Waugh, and I would send them the following letter.

'Dear Mr . . .,

I would very much like to include an extract from your writings in a collection. Rather than inflict on you the sordidly small fee you would be due, I have placed it in the poor box of a nearby Roman Catholic church. I will take it, in the absence of any response from you, that I am carrying out your wishes.

Yours faithfully,'

My team duly sent off many copies of this letter and nary a reply we got, partly because many of the authors we hoped to plunder were dead and gone, partly, I suppose, because many of the publishers who received the letter were too illiterate to have recognised the reference to Evelyn Waugh and, thinking it was some kind of joke, threw it in the bin.

One jazz critic, however, who apparently needed the money even more badly than critics usually do, wrote back indignantly and demanded his money. This placed me in a quandary. I was not unhappy to pass a few funds his way, but unfortunately the money had already been placed in a Catholic poor box, as promised, and was thus irretrievable. Or was it?

'Which church have you been showering with our royalties?' I asked my research squad.

'We've been spreading it about a lot,' they said. 'Bit here, bit here.'

This made it a lot easier. Some Catholic churches are impregnable. Some are easy meat. We selected one church that had its poor box near the door, and the research squad kept watch while I forced the box open. They did not keep watch well enough. I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder and looked round into the face of a muscular priest.

'I'm recovering royalties for an author of mine,' I said.

'Let's tell that to the police, shall we?' he said.

My case comes up early in the new year. It will be the first time, my lawyer tells me, that anyone has pleaded recovery of publishing expenses as a justification for burglary. Win or lose, the publishers tell me the publicity will be invaluable.