Brian Viner: How I became the Oscar Wilde of Rotterdam

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The Independent Online

Woody Allen famously said that he didn't want to achieve immortality through his work, he wanted to achieve it by not dying.

In fact, he will achieve immortality through his one-liners. Look at Oscar Wilde. How many people have seen A Woman of No Importance? A fraction of the number who know that Wilde described fox-hunting, as it happens in that very play, as the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable. And so it is with Woody.

As good as Annie Hall was, he is immortalised not by the film as a whole but by funny snatches of dialogue. "Don't knock masturbation... it's sex with someone I love." That will be quoted and possibly even misquoted until the end of time.

Which brings me to an e-mail I received yesterday, from a man in Antwerp who is compiling a book, in Dutch, of 11,000 contemporary quotations. He wants to include a line of mine recently published in these pages, so for indexing purposes, could I please inform him of the year of my birth?

I duly e-mailed this information, and asked what quotation it was that merited inclusion in his marvellous tome? "Giving children too little independence is just as irresponsible as giving them too much," came the reply.

I confess to being slightly disappointed. I had indeed written those words, but they do not add up to the devastatingly witty aperçu that I wish to be remembered by, even in the suburbs of Rotterdam. Still, it will be nice to be remembered at all in Rotterdam, especially as the only Dutch I know is a vulgar tongue-twister taught to me 22 years ago by three Dutch youths on a French campsite, to wit – or if you prefer, de witt – "blote borsten bingelen boven de blote buik".

Besides, now that I've wormed my way into one dictionary of quotations, albeit a Dutch one, perhaps others beckon. In my copy of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations there is a gaping hole between St Vincent and Virgil, and I don't see why I shouldn't fill it. The trouble is, great one-liners are like satisfying yawns; if you try, you can't. (Note to the editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations: you can have that one if you like.)

The other trouble is, the best stuff has all been done. As Mark Twain (immortalised not through his The Adventures of Tom Sawyer but through his many cracking one-liners) put it: "What a good thing Adam had. When he said a good thing he knew nobody had said it before."

So in pursuit of immortality I'll just press on with my scribblings, in the hope that somebody, somewhere, spots something they don't think they've seen before.

My friend Matthew, for instance, is immortalised in a reference book as the originator of the term "gazundering" – meaning the opposite of gazumping, ie some piece of pondweed agrees a price for your house, and then reduces it just at the last minute, when you can't bear the deal to break down.

I don't think Matthew claims to have invented the word, but evidently its first appearance in print was in an interview he once gave to a newspaper, about a house-buying nightmare he'd had. Accordingly, he is credited with enriching the English language.

That is quite a thing, to be the midwife at the birth of a new word. It is perhaps too much for me to hope for, or to put it another way, it is perhaps too much for me to shompontnick. However, I do draw enormous – that is to say, slight – satisfaction from being quoted in Over the Limit, the collected diaries of Bob Monkhouse. I'm right there in the index, between "venue, hell-like" and "vitality, hypnotic". All I have to do now is build on that. To misquote another line of Woody Allen's: "I'll be 40 soon. Practically a third of my life is over."

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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