Notebook: Many are called but few are chosen: The editor of the new Oxford Dictionary of Quotations on the ones that made it and the ones that got away

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN THE weeks following Angela Partington's compilation of the fourth edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, her head buzzed with bon mots that she might have included, but didn't. There was one on the pinafore hanging by the kitchen door: 'If you would be happy all your life, plant a garden.'

'I really wish I'd put that in,' she said.

Shivering under her sweater, she showed me her garden, gravel paths winding through beds of herbs. Her cottage is in Appleton, a farming village eight miles south-west of Oxford, a nice place in which to group and ponder the flowers of wit and wisdom handed down the generations.

But in her neatly-planted garden, Mrs Partington, 47 this weekend, was not entirely happy. 'My husband and I wanted children, and it was extremely painful to discover that we couldn't have any,' she said. 'So, when I'd finished editing the dictionary, and held the book in my hands, it was just like having had a baby - I counted all its little fingers and toes. But since then, there's been a kind of come-down. I sometimes have these misgivings . . . Will it really be a perfect child?'

She regrets the dictionary's omission of David Mellor, erstwhile Minister of Fun. 'When he was chief secretary to the Treasury he referred to 'Dolly Parton economists' - incredible figures that would collapse without support. We thought him a bit too flip, less interesting than he would later turn out to be.'

The fourth edition of the dictionary, to be published on 29 October, is not meant to be a boundless store of moral and historic truths. She had to draw a line somewhere. So she drew it against Mr Mellor, just as she reluctantly drew it against Madonna and against Coral Browne's famous put-down of a Hollywood hack: 'Listen, dear, you couldn't write fuck on a dusty Venetian blind]' Mrs Partington chuckled. She dipped a finger into a jar of Vaseline and lubricated her lips. Together, we then dipped into her book.

A lot of stuff in the third edition (published in 1979) has been dumped, among it Sir Edwin Landseer's confession 'If people only knew as much about painting as I do, they would never buy my pictures', Sir Arthur Wing Pinero's request to be 'put into something loose', and something by Ben Travers too boring to repeat. The latest edition is liberally sprinkled with vulgarities: 'There is no such thing as society' (Baroness Thatcher); 'Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?' (Mae West); 'Pass the sick bag, Alice' (John Junor); 'I paint with my prick' (Renoir); 'Don't knock masturbation. It's sex with someone I love' (Woody Allen).

The pounds 25 dictionary has more than 17,000 quotations from 2,500 people. Preachers will probe it for biblical truth (39 pages). Poseurs will pick at it for Shakespeare (70 pages). Who else nowadays has a use for quotations?

'Newspapers like to put them in their headlines,' Mrs Partington said. Journalists sometimes come up with good ones of their own, such as Brian Hanrahan's Falklands war phrase 'I counted them all out, and I counted them all back', which has been included. Two Sun headlines from the same conflict - 'Gotcha]' and 'Stick It Up Your Junta' - failed to make it.

'Then there are politicians and their speechwriters,' she said. She immortalises Jeremy Thorpe with his comment on Harold Macmillan's 1962 Cabinet purge - 'Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life.' Most MPs, however, eschew quotations from the classics, preferring, she noted, 'sound-bites': Denis Healey's 'like being savaged by a dead sheep' (on Sir Geoffrey Howe), and Michael Foot's 'semi-house- trained polecat' (on Lord Tebbit), both in. It is easier to hide deceit and delusion in an ambiguous metaphor or ridiculous slogan - 'The lady is not for turning' gets an ODQ mention - than in the lucidity of Burke or Emerson. A Hansard editor once told me that MPs cared nothing for what Coleridge called (and, incidentally, Mrs Partington ignored) 'the armoury of the human mind . . . (that) at once contains the trophies of its past, and the weapons of its future, conquests'.

Academics, on the other hand, find the ODQ great for spicing lectures - or spoiling dinner parties. Crossword- puzzle addicts also comb it. 'A book of quotations is very companionable - good for browsing through,' Mrs Partington said. 'And it makes a nice gift.' Did she toss quotations into her own conversations? 'I do quote quite a lot because I've got a reasonable memory. It's very satisying to find a nice form of words for conveying an interesting idea. But it all depends on the company you're in, particularly for a risque quotation. If you get a laugh it's all right.'

No blue-stocking buried in highbrow books, Mrs Partington is girlish for her age. A cloth doll on the back of the armchair peered over her shoulder. How did she come to edit the 1,000- page dictionary? As a pupil at Cheltenham Ladies' College she was 'classified as a dunce', she said. 'Yes, yes, I suffered there. At first, they thought I should jump ahead two classes but I never was able to catch up. I fell further and further behind. My morale and self-confidence never recovered.'

Her career took numerous turns: administrator with the BBC London Symphony Orchestra; television researcher; college secretary in Oxford; then, as a mature student coached by an unfrocked nun, a degree in English from St Hilda's (1974). She met her husband, a Leeds Polytechnic teacher, and moved to Yorkshire. 'And guess what?' She suddenly seemed embarrassed. 'I took a job cleaning other people's houses. I couldn't find other work at the time. There were six houses I used to clean. Perhaps you shouldn't mention that bit.' Why not, since it surely did her credit?

She returned to Oxford, found a job with Oxford University Press as a researcher, and then, more than three years ago, was given a contract to produce the fourth edition of the ODQ. 'They were looking for a single editor who would create a unifying mood and style, as opposed to the idiosyncratic mood of the third edition which was the work of several editors.' With the proceeds she has added a conservatory to her cottage.

Unaccountably, Mrs Partington has left out some old chestnuts. Ovid's 'Time is a great healer' is not in the ODQ which prefers his 'Time is the devourer of everything.' Voltaire's 'Every man is shaped by the times he lives in' is ignored, though not his more appealing observation: 'The secret of being a bore . . . is to tell everything.' Also missing are 'It is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought' (Wilde), and 'Censure is the tax a man pays to the public for being eminent' (Swift).

Mrs Partington said: 'Umm, yes, they are good. Perhaps I'll consider them for the reprints. But we have never claimed to be a dictionary of familiar quotations.' Her own favourite, Alexis de Tocqueville's 'History is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals and many copies', is in. Keeping the ODQ to its present length (154 pages more than the third edition) required steady nerves. 'Learning to cut is like riding a bike or driving a car. If you think too much about it you fall off or crash into a wall.'

'Political correctness' is harder to avoid. Out goes G W Hunt's 'We don't want to fight, but, by jingo, if we do . . .' and Mortimer Collins's 'A man is as old as he's feeling, a woman as old as she looks.' In comes Yoko Ono with 'Women are the niggers of the world', Gloria Steinem with 'A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle', and Bob Marley with 'I shot the sheriff.'

Arthur Scargill is there: 'Parliament would not exist in its present form had people not defied the law' - more resonant now than in 1980. So are the Bishop of Durham's 1984 reflections on the Resurrection: 'After all, a conjuring trick with bones only proves that it is as clever as a conjuring trick with bones.' Sylvia Plath speaks bitterly from the grave: 'Every woman adores a Fascist.'

Does every woman adore a quote- monger? Mrs Partington leafed through for the 18th-century poet Edward Young: 'Some for renown on scraps of learning dote,/ And think they grow immortal as they quote.' She laughed, a happy editor at last perhaps.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments