THE year is 2005 and, inside a Glasgow bookshop, Stephen Fry is signing copies of his latest tome, a beginner’s guide to writing poetry. As convention demands, I’ve purchased same, but this isn’t why I’m here.
Instead, I’ve smuggled in my dog-eared copy of Paperweight, Fry’s remarkable anthology of journalism. Placing the book before its author I witter at length on the wit and erudition of his prose, his unique way of turning a phrase until it catches the light. Fry smiles thinly. Behind me, a long queue of Bearsden matrons is growing restive and soon a shop assistant is guiding me to the door. I scrutinise the freshly-scrawled inscription: “To the creepy obsessive,” it reads “Best wishes, Stephen Fry.”
Notwithstanding such sarcastic (though perfectly justified) comments, this was autograph hunting at its most benign: the grip-and-grin in the flashbulb moment, the brief communion, the scrawl on the receipt of personal interaction.
But autograph-hunting isn’t, necessarily, a harmless indulgence, a devotional reflex occasioned when the impressionable glimpse the whites of a celebrity’s eyes. The pursuit can have its seamier side, where love can cleave to commerce. Such was revealed this week when the cheekbone of Andy Murray was served an ace by the carelessly-wielded accoutrements of an overzealous stage-door Johnny, one Ifran Ahmed, aka Iffy, a 26-year-old “enthusiast” from Essex.
On Wednesday night, among a madding crowd of photographers and civilians, Ahmed was awaiting Murray’s departure from Nobu restaurant in London. Such gatherings, these swelling and contracting amoebas of muted hysteria, are a common sight in London’s ritzier pockets and Ahmed, as is his wont, duly assumed his place. Upon the new Wimbledon champion’s exit Ahmed proffered for signature a tennis magazine titled Winning Serve, only to see it jabbed by jostling elbows into Murray’s left eye. Cue a hasty departure amid much theatrical rubbing of the injured orbit. The injury, however, was not the focus of the ensuing anti-Ahmed opprobrium, making him the most execrated autograph-hunter since Mark Chapman fired five shots into John Lennon (the record sleeve Lennon signed was later auctioned for £327,000). Ahmed’s crime wasn’t so much to have aligned himself with the disparaged tribe of the autograph-hunter, that brotherhood of the crumpled carrier-bag, but to have sought profit in the practice. Ahmed, it was revealed, was something of a Del Boy of the marker pen; a ducker and diver in the realm of the enhanced artefact. He sells his booty on, through eBay principally: a Formula One helmet signed by various drivers for £5,000; a guitar autographed by Keith Richards at £750 (bit of a bargain, I’d say); an oversize tennis ball signed by Murray and Novak Djokovic (£500). For sentimental reasons he may be hanging on to his signed portrait of Arthur Daley.
The tabloids deployed against Ahmed their full arsenal of outrage, though it was difficult to see what it was he’d done wrong, beyond placing in jeopardy the champ’s full peripheral vision. What he’d really done, of course, was lift a rock. Ahmed had drawn attention inadvertently to what we might term the hidden paparazzi, a phalanx of celebrity stalkers every bit as pushy, persistent and ubiquitous as the photographic variety of popular dismay. As the pilot fish trails the shark, the autograph hunter piggybacks upon the newspaper snapper; at the same locations, by the same networks of intelligence and towards much the same end.
Towards a better end, actually; for, whatever instinct and commonsense may tell you, collecting autographs is a noble and a meaningful pastime. In a digital, mediated world, the good autograph represents one of the last vestiges of the properly spiritual. They involve quantities of awe and good faith similar to those experienced by the medieval faithful while inspecting such holy relics as the fingers of Mary Magdalene.
A number of years ago, I bought at auction a gardening manual signed by Syd Barrett, the late founder of Pink Floyd and a figure of intense cult appeal. To this day grown men visit the house to see this book. They peruse the wobbly signature, shake their heads and exhale thoughtfully, transported by the idea that for several seconds the hand of the man was in contact with this very page. A book autographed by David Bowie exerts a similar effect, though more usually upon women.
The comic David Mitchell, of Peep Show, has shown himself exercised particularly by the etiquette of autographs. Only the autographing of books is permissible, he thinks: “I received a book signed by Alan Bennett once,” he has said. “It was like a tiny sliver of the pleasure a mad person gets from kidnapping a celebrity.” Martin Amis too relishes a signed book, stating he considers autographing his own the final stage of their production process.
According to Mark Rundles of Memorabilia UK, one of the country’s biggest dealers, autograph collecting has gone industrial: “Over the past two decades the celebrities have become much more savvy,” he says. “They know that standing outside the Dorchester signing everything put in front of them is like standing there doling out fifty pound notes.”
For Rundles the pursuit has been compromised fatally by the advent of the internet: “Twenty years ago, if you had ten Bjorn Borg autographs – what were your options? Advertise them in the local paper? It wasn’t worth the trouble. Without the internet, autograph collecting was a genteel hobby, a pastime. Now it’s supply and demand. And there’s no shortage of supply. Everyone’s a shopkeeper, and autographs are tins of beans.”
Ahmed seems fairly typical of his breed, says Rundles: “They are very organised, very efficient,” he says. “They know the celebrity’s schedule; they know staff at the hotels and restaurants. They know which celebrities are difficult about signing and decide which events to attend on that basis.
“If it’s a film premiere with a barricade, sometimes along its length you’ll see perhaps three collectors who work for the same company. They always, as a matter of professional pride, carry a range of pens in varying shades, magazines, programmes and so on.
“You see them at Wimbledon, carrying ten balls, a couple of rackets and some t-shirts. They’re called in-person autograph specialists. They never want an item personally dedicated, it reduces the value. That’s one way the celebrities distinguish the professionals from the guys who genuinely want a celebrity autograph for their own collection.”
The way Rundles sees it, industrial autograph-collecting can amount to a perfectly decent living: “It has its limits, though,” he says. “There are few living celebrities whose signature is worth more than £50. So that’s your upper level and you work out your level of commitment on that basis. You wait two hours and get two Brad Pitt signatures. That’s a return of £50 an hour – better than working on the bins. But it’s horribly boring work.”
Another elephant in the room is the threat of the fake autograph, endemic in an industry where the means of production is no more involved than to scribble a sequence of letters in a given formation.
The secret, says Garry King of leading dealers Autografica, is to investigate provenance. “They often make claims about having inside contacts at film studios, the music industry, football clubs,” he says.
“They may say they have a team of people collecting at film premieres or after-show parties. The truth is that the numbers of items signed at premieres is often very small and certainly not large enough to go round the hundreds of dealers now making these claims.
“Certain questions must always be asked of a dealer, particularly online – how long have they been dealing in autographs? Who in the trade knows them? Are they members of any recognised associations, like the Autograph Fair Trade Association or the Universal Autograph Collector’s Club.”
“I suppose it all balances out,” says Rundles sadly. “People can get genuine autographs relatively cheaply, very easily. If you can call them autographs. These days they’re just squiggles. Gone are the days when Elizabeth Taylor gave you a beautiful signature in copperplate.”
At the same time, autographs are becoming a bulwark against the demise of, for instance, the recording industry. CDs are sold pre-signed by mail order, a personal touch intended to add value. The quality of a signature, I’d contest, matters less than the strange, affecting certainty that a given item has passed, however momentarily, through the ken of its creator. Trust me, I’m a creepy obsessive, a claim to which Stephen Fry happily signed his name. «