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.