Bamber Gascoigne (or Bambi as those of us who grew up with The Young Ones would forever know him) was a famous Richmond resident. I’ve lived in or very near Richmond for around half my life but only saw him twice. The second time was in recent years, merely passing him in the street – blink and you’d miss him, deep in thought, tall and spindly like some ginger wraith, white of shirt, delicately flapping in the breeze (both shirt and man). The first time meanwhile was more memorable. I was 17 or 18 and had a Saturday job in a photocopying shop. I spent half my time in there hating every minute of it and the other half cocking up the customers’ orders. The front desk was right in the shop window that caught the sun all morning. I was sweating, in multiple senses, by an industrial-sized photocopier when in drifted this bespectacled character, tall of face, somehow nondescript and charismatic at the same time, and of course instantly recognisable, even if my familiarity with University Challenge (which he had just stopped presenting after twenty-odd years) was at that time still sketchy. (I’ve long since become a dedicated fan.) Thin, pale fingers placed a weighty pile of papers on the desk, and he asked what we charged for copies up to a certain number of sheets. I told him the price, and I’ll always remember how he replied, in that legendary enunciation: “Yes, that’s interesting.” If I’d been in a different mood, I might have found it a bit patronising, but it really wasn’t; unlike most of his Eton compatriots since, he seemed sincere. He must have left the manuscript in the shop to collect his copies later, because I remember either reading or, shockingly, making a secret copy of a couple of sheets. I don’t remember the title but it was a reference work, a sort of “dictionary of phenomena” – British phenomena, I think. His preface set out the premise – the only quote I remember was something like “Entries are listed not in alphabetical order but grouped by ‘experience’, their placement decided according to the degree to which they are lodged in the public consciousness”. The only actual entry I remember was:
bumfreezer (type of jacket)
I don’t recall now thirty years later whether “bumfreezer” was grouped by “jackets” or “style” or “weather” or “posteriors” – and as for how entries might have been decided, I am even less clear. A browse on Amazon for books by Gascoigne doesn’t list any such work, suggesting it never made it beyond a few photocopies in an airless little shop in Richmond. This is surely a shame, yet maybe it just wasn’t workable as a static reference book: what he needed was hyperlinks, which were still ten years away. Even if University Challenge was just a tad elitist in its day it’s cool to think Bamber Gascoigne was a decade ahead of his time.