Catalogue-writing is an art form

No trip to the UK is complete without a visit to catch up with John McKenzie, the man described as being “quite as celebrated as Geoff Boycott” by the writer Geoffrey Moorhouse.

The number of catalogues published by the South African-born John McKenzie, a sprightly man in his 70s, is now up to 200. Here is a catalogue with Sachin Tendulkar on the cover.   -  Special Arrangement

Years ago, I set out to acquire Wisden Almanacks. The first was published in 1864 (I have a facsimile), and the first three then cost over 20,000 pounds! Needing to scale down my ambition, I settled on all Wisdens since World War II; the suggestion was made by John McKenzie whose J W McKenzie Cricket Books in Surrey is the best in the world, a veritable shrine since it opened in 1973.

When I first met the South African-born McKenzie he was already 100 up. And now it’s 200. That’s not his age, mind you, for he is a sprightly man in his 70s. It is the number of catalogues he has published. No trip to the UK is complete without a visit to catch up with the man described as being “quite as celebrated as Geoff Boycott” by the writer Geoffrey Moorhouse.

The catalogues, with their succinct descriptions of books, lithographs and cricketana are a treat. Catalogue-writing (and producing) is an art form. The descriptions are technical, critical and focused, and are treasures of their own. No. 150 was about Scarce Cricket Books, including a 1798 Britcher. Before Wisden there was Britcher, published from 1790 to 1805. Samuel Britcher was an MCC scorer. The 1798 edition offered at J W McKenzie Cricket Books — only four copies exist — is priced at 75,000 pounds. For the casual collector, the Carduses and Arlotts and biographies can be had for eight or 12 pounds. Then there are special catalogues where these become even cheaper.

Information dispensed pithily is a British gift, as evidenced by the labels in their art galleries and catalogues like McKenzie’s. There is, too, the joy of discovery as one bit of information leads to a find elsewhere. Here, for example, is The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard, in Catalogue No. 186. It offers an offprint from it, describing the construction of a cricket bat, which “looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of wood cunningly put together in a certain way… if you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds…there’s a conspiracy by the MCC to keep cudgels out of Lord’s..”

Catalogue 199 features signed items, mostly books; on the cover is Garry Sobers from the book describing his early years, The Bayland’s Favourite Son. The limited edition copies are signed by Sobers himself, and is the latest by McKenzie who got into publishing recently.

Initially McKenzie sold books from his parents’ house where an early buyer was the Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter. They became friends, with Mckenzie sometimes landing up at Pinter’s house to play table tennis. Other friends included Don Bradman (whose wife confessed to him she feared for the Don’s life during Bodyline), Tim Rice and a host of international cricketers. Rice has a full set of Wisdens.

As No. 200 prepares to take off from the unprepossessing building a few minutes from the Stoneleigh Station, maybe McKenzie could be persuaded to write his own story, which is as fascinating as many in his catalogues.