Some of the Australian cricketers, it seems, are cagey about sport’s time-honoured hobby of autograph collecting. At Highbury stadium new signs order you never to approach Arsenal players for autographs. There was a minor fuss at the Open golf when Tiger Woods’s men announced the champ would sign his name for fans only ‘in pre-announced and strictly regulated circumstances’. Sports celebs reckon the too liberal scrawl of their name in a schoolboy’s autograph book endangers their precious ‘image rights’ and they fear recipients will at once flog it to the highest bidder on an internet auction site. So what am I bid for the first in my tattered old book? How thrilled I was — page one, trim and precise in his own fountain pen, is logged the late Charlie Barnett, Glos and England dasher who lived not far from us up Chalford Hill: ‘To Francis, Best of luck, C.J. Barnett.’ I see our beloved off-spinner Bomber Wells, happily still with us and 75 last week, doled out his monicker freely: he was, matily, just ‘The Bomber’ when the county played at Stroud, but ‘B.D. Wells’ when they played at snooty Cheltenham, and quite right too.
First fabled footballer I ‘booked’ was Wolves and England captain Billy Wright. The great William Ambrose came to open the little Western League ground by the LMS railway line at Stonehouse and when we urchins mobbed him with our books and scraps of paper he signed with simultaneous fluency with both left hand and right, the quicker to disperse us happy. My biggest boyhood coup was nabbing Bradman’s 1948 Invincibles, all 17 of them on a single sheet which they had signed on the embossed, headed notepaper of their incoming liner Strathaird. Last month an identical sheet, I saw, was being offered by a collector for £750. Alas, my good father, who knew not his cricket, bonfired my treasure the morning we moved house in the late 1950s.
Image rights are one thing, but the truth is that children now want the courtiers, not the kings. The other day I saw England’s highest ever run-scorer, Graham Gooch, walk past — unnoticed — a queue of autograph-hunters waiting to bag in their books (Lord help us) Simon Hughes, the Channel 4 ‘analyst’. At a London football banquet a few years ago, Stanley Matthews and Ferenc Puskas sat in quiet, anonymous contemplation at one end of a table of eight while, at the other, a desperate throng swarmed around Des Lynam for his signature. I loved confrère Simon Hoggart’s tale the other day of maestro Alistair Cooke, briefly back in Manchester for a visit, having a drink in the bar of the Midland Hotel with ever full-of-himself Brian Redhead, when a hovering waiter plucked up courage to approach with a pen and piece of paper and say, ‘If I tell my wife I heard that world-famous voice and didn’t get an autograph, she would never forgive me!’ At which Redhead grabbed the paper, preeningly signed, and handed it straight back, while Cooke sat there astonished.
It was at Manchester, too, almost 40 years ago that we all piled into the restaurant-car at Piccadilly station after a breathless 90-minute Saturday at Old Trafford. Among our pressbox number was fledgling (now venerably eminent) television commentator Barry Davies. The train chugged off and we were offered menus. Superstar-to-be Barry distractedly signed his and handed it right back to the waiter.