Howard Croft column: Amazon book search turns up a surprise

Sir John Walton.
Sir John Walton.
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I recently found that I was able to buy through Amazon copies of Remembering Henry, an affectionate appreciation of the life of Henry Miller, a Newcastle neurologist who rose through the ranks from junior doctor, eventually becoming Vice-Chancellor of the university. This slim volume was published in 1997 by the British Medical Association; the market would have been confined to family, friends and former colleagues of Miller and the print-run would have been correspondingly short. Surprisingly, I was able to acquire copies for no more than £2.50 a go.

One of Miller’s pupils, also a neurologist and also very distinguished, was John Walton (later Lord Walton) whose autobiography, The Spice of Life, I published in 1993. My copy, generously inscribed by him, has gone missing during my travels and various changes of address over the years and following my shrewd purchase of the Miller volume I wondered if I could replace my own now lost copy of Walton’s.

Now, I am the first to admit that The Spice of Life was by no means a best seller. Although John was noted for his concise style when writing on neurological matters, when it came to writing about himself his output was on the wordy side and it was no surprise that I was left with quite a number in the warehouse. I sold a few copies to a bargain bookshop chain for a pound a copy and they found their way to high street shops where they were knocked out for three quid each. When even this trickle of sales dried up I was still left with copies which I gave to the author, who was after all a friend and I was happy to supply him with something he could give to visiting neurologists from around the world who made pilgrimages to his home during his retirement.

Imagine my surprise when I found on Amazon copies of The Spice of Life on offer at £420, having been published and priced by me at £25. Had John been making a bit of a killing on the side, I wondered, thanks to my impulsive generosity, and not letting on? We have exchanged letters from time to time, but he made no mention of it. Unfortunately, I cannot tackle him about this as he died – full of years and full of honours – early last year in his mid-nineties.

My next step was to find out if my own slender volume, Howard’s Way, features in the investment opportunities section of Amazon. There it is, by Jove, but pretty much a penny share offered at a fiver, well below the published price. I noticed a five star rating alongside the slogan “Entertainment Superb” which raised my spirits briefly, until I realised that this is the name of the third party seller and that the stars refers to their service rating, not to the quality of the book. I do not recommend it as a buy, but if you already have a copy I suggest that you hang on to it for a few years as it could be worth a fortune. Remember, unsigned copies are rare.

Anyway, while this was all going on, in “real time” as we now say, as opposed to “unreal” time which I normally occupy, I was corrected in my pronunciation of my native language. And by a Welshman of all things, if you can imagine that. A Taffy! He a slight acquaintance of mine and I happened to mention to him that Mrs Croft was away for a few days visiting our niece in Bath. “It’s not Bath, it’s Barth” – the southern pronunciation. That old chestnut.

I am as willing to take correction as the next man, but to take it on matters concerning my native tongue from someone whose own native tongue cannot properly be uttered without half a pint of phlegm in the throat does not come easily. I gave him a few examples to demonstrate the error of his ways along the lines of “the cart sart on the mart” – start at the Janet and John level, I thought to make it easy for a man from the larnd of his farthers. “The bacon in my sarndwich has too much fart on it” was another.

He said “thart is different”, and so we went art it, tit for tart if you like, bark and forth for several minutes, but I don’t think he got it. In the end I got up, buttoned up my jarket, doffed my carp at him and went to a meeting about frarking.