Books: A delectable literary pursuit

Christopher Hawtree picks over a store of allusions; A Gentleman Publisher's Commonplace Book by John G Murray, John Murray, pounds 9.95
All of us carry about a commonplace book. That is, within the book and volume of the brain there is a store of quotation and allusions to be deployed when the occasion calls for something toney. Meet as it is to set these down, Evelyn Waugh remarked that "the keeping of such a book is a delectable literary pursuit - very rare nowadays - which requires many high gifts if it is to be worthwhile."

One regrets that he did not do so, but they are not so rare as all that, and some gifted compilers even proffer a version in their lifetimes. Justification for this came from Rupert Hart-Davis who prefaced A Beggar in Purple with a 1642 remark by Thomas Fuller: "a Common-place-book contains many notions in garrison, whence the owner may draw out an army into the field."

When millions are demanded for purported novels under the names of purported celebrities, it is combative to name this delightful, elegantly-produced little garrison A Gentleman Publisher's Commonplace Book. It is not a volume akin to those of Auden and Forster, which are built upon substantial extracts, or even to that one of brief items chosen by Wallace Stevens to form something as satisfyingly elliptical as his poetry. The late John ("Jock") Murray is more in the spirit of the volumes of Christmas Crackers by his friend John Julius Norwich. It is embellished with many drawings by Beryl Cook, Betjeman, Osbert Lancaster and John Piper. Edited by Murray's son, it continues the family passion for typeface and design, - but does not reveal whether he shares the "strong belief that the best results were achieved if one was unhindered by clothes."

Careful to put the word in quotation-marks, Murray's son suggests that one "surf" the volume. Donning shorts, here goes. Unlike Geoffrey Braithwaite, Jock Murray did not forbid the inclusion of Logan Pearsall Smith's "People say life is the thing, but I prefer reading." There is ample evidence here that Murray was far from study-bound. He even credits a phrase to John Lennon, difficult as it is to picture his listening to Double Fantasy and tapping along to Yoko's orgasmic cries before the needle reached "Beautiful Boy".

He is delighted to find a sign in a Westmoreland butcher's window: "John Murray, seller of tripe." An American couple, married for 65 years, said that they had not divorced sooner as "we felt we ought to wait until the children were dead." "Laugh and the the world laughs with you. Snore and you sleep alone" is credited to Anthony Burgess, who was surprised to find the same mistake in a dictionary of quotations, "but I'm not grumbling." Maurice Baring recorded one doctor asking another for advice about a pregnancy. "'The father was syphilitic, the mother tuberculous. Of the children born the first was blind, the second died, the third was deaf and dumb, the fourth was tuberculous. What would you have done?' 'I would have ended the next pregnancy.' 'Then you would have murdered Beethoven.'"

Agatha Christie was wittier than many suppose: "the advantage of being married to an archaeologist is that the older you get, the more interested he becomes in you." One might indeed discern an undertow of decay and death, summed up by John Gielgud. "Most of my friends seem to be either dead, extremely deaf or living on the wrong side of Kent."

One could review this volume several times and come up with a different piece each time. In fact, it is worth buying for the disinterring of Rose Macaulay's observation that "a house unkempt cannot be so distressing as a life unlived."