Sunday, 8 March 2009



There was probably no time in history when there were more books on quotations pouring from the publishers or fewer people who use them in ordinary conversation.


This may be because people are less well read now than they used to be or it may be that schools don’t insist on children memorising memorable remarks, speeches from Shakespeare or acres of poetry. Which I think is a pity.


Ruskin, if I may quote him, said that a room without pictures was a house without windows. I think much the same is true of quotations.


Quotations are the pictures we hang on the walls of conversation. At their best they say in a few words what would take the rest of us whole sentences to explain; in the way that a good picture encompasses far more than the room it takes.


However, quotations of a sort still play a major part in our lives. Difficult to think of a pop song which is much more than a list of quotable remarks. The Beatles, it seems to me, were particularly gifted in this direction. I believe in yesterday sums up my whole attitude to life.


So little of television is memorable that I cannot think of a single catchphrase from that medium; but radio used to provide them in handfuls. In the days of ITMA you could hold an entire conversation with lines from the show, such as “Don’t forget the diver”, “Can I do you now, sir?” and “I don’t mind if I do”.


The ability to do them in the right voice was a plus.


I met a girl called Elizabeth Knowles who was  the managing editor of a large team at the Oxford Press which has produced surely the first Dictionary of Literary Quotations. to begin with Ancient Egyptian aphorisms and end on the Internet. Four thousand entries in all.


It had a reading team of five people and I wonder; does their reading consist of other books of quotations or do they go the pit face? I ask because, with the possible exception of Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary and Geoffrey Madden’s Notebooks, the same quotations seem to crop up again and again.


My favourite quotation in the whole book comes from Alan Bennett when he reported that looking in a diary for the birthdays of contemporary figures, he finds, on his own birthday, merely a notice it was the day the first launderette opened.


Celebrity comes in for a hammering too. See John Updike’s brilliant observation that it is a mask that eats the face.


Their view of themselves is revealing. Barbara Cartland believed that she was dictated to by God.


But other authors they think less of. Vidal on Hemingway: “No other culture could have produced him and not seen the joke“ isn’t even a good joke. It certainly wasn’t Cyril Connolly’s view. He credited Hemingway with the death of what he called Mandarin writing

Next to quotations, I love ghost stories. My favourite comes in John Evelyn’s seventeenth century diary. He says that when a ghost who appeared was asked if it was a good spirit or a bad spirit ”it disappeared with a most melodious twang”.


Aubrey’s friend was the theologian Sir Thomas Browne. He went so far as to say that if you didn’t believe in spirits you must be an atheist; because, after all, angels were spirits.


Goldie Hawn is no atheist. I read that she decided to marry her live-in lover when the ghost of her mother appeared in the bathroom and said it was high time they got married.


My mother was given different advice. On hr wedding day my grandmother told her: "I would rather be carrying you out feet first than see you marry that man."


The house I lived in Wales was haunted by a blacksmith in a top hat. And by a piper. A Scottish regiment, the Lovat Scouts, was stationed in the house during the war. Alas, I neither saw nor heard either.


But I did see the previous tenant of a cottage we had. He was a deceased rabbit catcher called Bob. And I saw him quite clearly just before breakfast one morning. I subsequently heard him quite often bumping into things. I found it comforting to have evidence that Heaven is licensed to purvey intoxicating liquors.


Few quotations are more apt that the one which inists that when an Englishman speaks another Engliushman holds hi in contempt. Not only the English


In Edinburgh my Morningside aunt used to shudder whenever she heard a Glaswegian accent; and Dubliners can be pretty scornful of people from the West of Ireland


It’s not just received pronunciation that sets people apart. It is smart to speak Estuary English, which is a semi cockney in which no word keeps its final letter and ‘H’ is non-existent.


In the Fifties I couldn’t get a job on the BBC in Manchester because of my Lancashire accent. Over the years, whisky and marrying above myself have refined it - only to find myself in a world where you can hardly hope for a job in broadcasting if you haven’t got a regional accent.


I do not know enough about America to know whether Americans have similar problems of class structure based on pronunciation, but I doubt it. I am sure, though, that even there some regional accents are more acceptable than others. They certainly are in other parts of the UK. In Wales this doesn’t apply because now there is a snob culture in language itself.


But I have been reading about an England where Brummie, Belfast and Glaswegian are socially unacceptable but Estuary English, Yorkshire, Received Pronunciation and refined Scots, Welsh and Irish are in.

I remember as a young man being in a smart rowing club at Kingston on Thames and being laughed at -literally -because I said I was going for a bath, rather than a ‘barth’. With hindsight, I suspect it was evidence of a tribe protecting itself from foreigners.





It was a concept more suited to the pen of Jonathon Swift, the great 18th century fantasist and inventor of societies.


The commentators (and oh for the days when newspapers stuck to the facts) warn that we face an invasion of the angry unemployed from Eastern Europe now we are closing down the factories we so magnanimously opened there to welcome them into the Greater Europe.


The notion that, after thousands of years of fighting each other and grabbing chunks of each other’s kingdoms, politicians, the most power crazed of communities, would settle down into one harmonious whole, hurling gold coins at each other and proffering the products of each country’s industry to grateful neighbours, is ludicrous.


There was just an indication of flaw in the plan when, rather than succour the world’s poor, the Community preferred to create vast wine lakes and mountains of cereals. One might have been warned when, consistently, year after year, the audit commission it had itself set up refused to pass the Community’s accounts. Scandal followed scandal. At one time or another most of the Heads of Departments have been caught with sticky fingers. The ruined face of the planet, bombed and shelled back into the Stone Age, did little for the Community’s reputation as a peacemaker. More money was wasted building two headquarters in adjoining countries, to end the squabbles about where it should be sited.


There were many advantages to the Community. Chiefly those enjoyed by the Community servants.


Since the purpose of bureaucracy is to increase power, the Community welcomed to its heart other communities, recent enemies made poor by the doctrines of Communism.


By this time most sensible people had begun to look on the EU as we do the weather. It’s a damned nuisance but there is nothing we can do about it.


The recent failure of the Capitalist system, through the incompetence and corruption of governments and financial communities, could have been the EU’s shining hour. Now was the time for the richer or wiser kingdoms to help its most recent lame followers.


The result: Gordon Brown, the Tartan |Messiah, proposed more vast sums be doled out to Latvia, Hungary and Romania, but flew off to America without saying where the money was to come from.


An EU Summit of 27 bad tempered leaders in Brussels meanwhile observed the collapse of the so called tiger economies but rejected a resolution to give an immediate hand-out of £170 billion.

It became obvious that the Western EU countries would rather prop up their own economies by feather bedding their own industries and closing down the outposts they had established beyond a suddenly restored Iron Curtain.


Feren Gyurcscany, the Hungarian leader, warned that “a significant crisis in Eastern Europe would trigger political tensions and immigration pressures’. He even quoted figures.


“There is a central European and Eastern European population of 350 million, of which 100 million are in the EU. A 10 per cent increase in unemployment would lead to at least five million people unemployed within the EU.”


It’s enough to make the Statue of Liberty blow out her lamp. Although, in fairness, most ordinary people would have warned that get-togethers only work in fine weather.



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