David Bowie’s Lost Concept Album

How do you hit a six when you’re playing cricket indoors?

In the particular match I’m thinking of I don’t recall any being signalled, though almost every shot was lofted – but things were certainly knocked for six. Solid dark-wood bookcases, mostly.

The venue for this impromptu fixture was the book department in Harrods’ department store, Knightsbridge, SW1, second floor, if I remember rightly: off the escalator and through bedlinen, past assistants resignedly patting and plumping pillows with unnecessary frequency. It was just after six o’clock, when the store had closed for the day, and it was 1980. Good grief.

The book department, like all of Harrods in those days except for the Way In boutique on the top floor, was a hushed, strictly formal place. Working there in my year off between school and university, I found myself reproved one day by the floor manager for wearing “the loudest suit in the department”: it was a muted brown. Padding about the carpeted floor to locate a lavish coffee-table book on Persian carpets, we were “Mr This” and “Miss That”, at all times. The presence of women apart, something of the pavilion at Lord’s, and definitely Gentlemen rather than Players. The manager, a kindly, bearded man in his sixties, I would think, the sort of man you’d expect to smoke a pipe, and did, sat at a large leather-topped desk every morning and peered over his half-spectacles at the publishers’ reps trying to sell him their latest titles, and when it was the new Graham Greene or the new John Le Carré he’d order seven hundred and fifty copies, just like that, and months later they’d be wheeled in on trolleys, box upon box after box, by men in green nylon coats.     

But this one evening it must have been the buyer’s day off, and it would also have been the start of the cricket season, because the new Wisden was out, which was why we had a display on one of the tables of a pile of thick yellow tomes, together with a bat, a ball and other cricket accessories borrowed from the sports department. The last customers had asked in their clipped way for their purchases to be put “on accine-t” and drifted out, the tills had been cashed up, and that was stumps.

Except that suddenly the diminutive children’s book buyer was taking strike, to the underarm bowling of the paperback buyer, and no matter that she was playing rather across the line, with the bat somewhat away from her body. Thwack! – and that nice new cherry was going crash!-doonk!-crash! out on the on side, ricocheting from bookcase to bookcase, from History to Architecture to Biography. Another mighty swipe, and despite no back-lift to speak of, with a gunshot crack – the noise, when you smite a cricket ball in a confined space! – the next one was sailing past the tills over extra cover towards Food and Drink, and bidding to go all the way into the paperback room. I guess that would have been six, as would depositing it behind square leg amongst the Beatrix Potter figurines and the Famous Fives next door in children’s.

I can’t remember how the game concluded that evening: maybe we all just went on to the pub, as the young people among us used to do quite a lot. But I do remember, several weeks later, learning that the book department had had to pay the sports department for that no longer pristine bat with the red marks all down its blade, and the ball with the chunks taken out of it by the corner of a solid wood bookcase.

And this was where, on another day working in Harrods’ book department, I met David Bowie.

I was stationed on the till that morning, just before lunch, when a thin, serious man suddenly materialised in front of me and, looking up from under a floppy hank of hair, inquired shyly if we had a copy of Scouting for Boys.

No, we hadn’t, I was afraid: from my own scouting days I knew you had to go to the Scouts Association shop in Buckingham Palace Road to get it. There was an attractive dark-haired woman with him I subsequently discovered to have been Oona Chaplin, whom he’d got to know in New York while appearing in the Broadway production of The Elephant Man. The other book he was looking for, he said quietly, was The Count of Monte Cristo. I went and had a hunt in Classics: we hadn’t got that either. That was David Bowie!, I murmured to my colleagues after he’d left empty-handed, and later was mortified to find they’d gone and accosted him just outside the department to request his autograph, which he’d courteously obliged.

As far as I know, right up until he died last month David Bowie had no connection with cricket whatsoever, though I look forward to being corrected. But I think that dignified, retiring customer I encountered could have done. As who, though? Perhaps among the ranks of the more cerebral county captains around at that time – a Richard Gilliat, say, or a John Barclay? A spin bowler, no question, not a quick, and a measured, judicious batsman, not a pinch-hitter. Not an instinct player, either: a thinker – ever pondering, hunkered in the slips, pen poised over Times crossword while waiting to come in, how do we play this game? A proper sportsman; never a sledger. A clever man, to play a clever game. I could certainly see him at Hove – simultaneously raffish and home to the odd retired Major.

But – Scouting for Boys! I’ve always wondered what would have happened if Harrods’ book department had been able to find him a copy that day. Scary Monsters came out that year, 1980 – but what on earth might have been the concept album that followed..?