From Eatanswill to Foot's last stand

Robin Cook listens to the shining wits of Westminster: The Literary Com panion to Parliament edited by Christopher Silvester, Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 30 The Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations edited by Anthony Jay, Oxford, pounds 15.99

Being a Member of Parliament is not a profession but an obsession. We work daily 12-hour shifts in its offices. We take three meals a day in its tea rooms and canteens. Our sense of reward is a speech well-received. Our sense of fun is a speech well-tackled.

Anyone who shares our obsession to the extent of producing 600 pages of memoirs about Parliament starts out with our prejudices behind him. I began by really wanting to admire the monumental fruits of Christopher Silvester's labour, but even a mutual obsession could not sustain my enthusiasm.

He produces some interesting facts for addicts of Trivial Pursuit - for instance, that the tea room consumed 224lbs of bacon rashers in an all-night sitting. But the overall effect is curiously lifeless and does not capture the passion, the venom or the grandeur of Parliament.

The first problem is that his Companion is not at all literary. I could find not any extract from the many novels that flit through Parliament. Dickens is cited as a sketch writer, but there is no quotation from Our Mutual Friend of the satirical dash to take the mood of the nation in Central Lobby, or from Pickwick Papers about the election for the Borough of Eatanswill. Incredibly, Trollope has not a single entry, although no literary figure has written more about Parliament or appeared more famously as the favourite reading of Conservative Prime Ministers.

Silvester's chief sources are MPs writing diaries for their own entertainment; but people writing privately about their own obsession tend not to produce great literature. It is unnecessary for him to include a spectacularly tedious chapter on great bores when most chapters provide adequate proof that MPs can indeed be bores. The second problem is that Silvester appears to be under the impression that Parliament was suspended at the time of the Suez Crisis and never reconvened. The half century in which the bulk of his potential buyers grew up is missing.

The chapter on ladies in Parliament leaves the reader with the nagging suspicion that he regards that phrase as a contradiction in terms. Most of the quotations are about women in the Ladies' Gallery, with only two entries for the period after the suffragettes succeeded. Yet, by anyone's standards, one of the dominant parliamentary figures of this century was Margaret Thatcher. It is impossible to understand the excessively adversarial character of the Commons now without reference to her confrontational personality.

The chapter on "Great and Terrible Occasions" contains neither the fall of the previous Labour government, otherwise remembered as Foot's Last Stand, nor the resignation speech of Margaret Thatcher. Yet everyone can agree that one of those events was Great and the other Terrible, even though there may be different views as to which way round the descriptions fit.

No-one who was there on the day of Mrs Thatcher's last speech at the Despatch Box will forget how a weary, defeated woman was transformed into the familiar handbagger when she rounded an a heckler. One of the reasons she survived so long in office, despite dishing out a diet of unpopular policies, was that she could command the Commons. Conversely, one of the reasons why the present government is in terminal decline is that it is saddled with a PM who cannot even command the respect of the Press Gallery. Yet the significance of Parliament as the crucible of our political system is lost among this encyclopaedia of gossip and trivia.

By contrast, Antony Jay's Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations provides a sharp insight into the heat of political exchange. Mrs Thatcher is vividly portrayed, in Matthew Parris's sketch of her introduction into the House of Lords, as "a big cat detained briefly in a poodle parlour, sharpening her claws on the velvet". And the best of the past is here - Tom Paine, for example, more acerbic than any modern sketch writer, reporting the failure of Burke in debate: "He rose like a rocket, he fell like a stick".

Yet the collection is also absolutely contemporary with generous entries for both Tony Blair and John Major. Iain Macleod's entries express better than any others the wit and invective of debate. How could an opponent recover from this charge: "I cannot help it if every time the Opposition are asked to name weapons they pick a boomerang"?

The success of the Dictionary is that most entries were intended for publication, and many are polished gems. This is indeed a companion with which to while away a late-night sitting. I would not be entirely surprised to detect some of the quotations being recycled to adorn the occasional speech. There is, after all, no greater praise a parliamentarian can offer than a threat to plagiarise.

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'