Old maids on bikes and bollocks on stilts

History in Quotations
July 30, 2004

Is there a theory and practice of quotation, one wonders, browsing in this eminently browsable book? A methodology? An - ology of any kind in the vox pop of history, the pick and mix of lit crit? "Maidservants, I hear people complaining, are getting instructed in the 'ologies'" (Thomas Carlyle). Perhaps the nearest we have got to an ur-text, a veritable edification of quotation, is The Arcades Project , Walter Benjamin's unfinished masterpiece. Benjamin was surely one of the most quotable men who ever lived. "Method of this project: literary montage. I needn't say anything. Merely show." Suitably arranged and obsessively rearranged, the quotations would communicate among themselves, make connections, discover affinities, set up vibrations, like pictures at an exhibition. They would constitute "a magic encyclopaedia" of their era, a historical "mirror world".

Mirror theory is much favoured by the quotation dispensation. For the editor of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations ( ODQ ), a work of that sort is essentially "a mirror of the age". The tag line for History in Quotations is "Reflecting 5,000 Years of World History". It is an arresting claim - quotation as encapsulation - and by no means an empty one. It gives rise to three problems. There is the problem of selection, even in a work of some 1,000 pages. There is the problem of presentation - in HiQ , thematic and chronological ("The Crusades", "The Enlightenment", "Globalisation") rather than alphabetical. And there is the problem of distortion - like the photograph, the quotation has the smack of authenticity, but like the camera, the mirror can be turned this way and that, according to taste or attitude or system of belief.

What is being reflected, therefore, may vary. Quotability or quoteworthiness is not fixed, but is in fact highly unstable. Gladstone, for example, was long considered a bore - "He speaks to Me as if I was a public meeting" (Queen Victoria) - and virtually unquotable (down to nine entries in the 1979 ODQ ). More recently he is in the ascendant (18 entries in the 1992 ODQ , 19 in HiQ ). In the leagues of quotation citation, however, Gladstone is eclipsed by Churchill. Churchill rated no more than 16 entries in the 1960 Penguin Dictionary of Quotations (quarried, as the editors put it, by the young M. J. Cohen). In the 1992 ODQ this figure rose to 40, and in HiQ it has reached 61. Churchill is the winner in this world history - "history will bear me out, particularly as I shall write that history myself" (Churchill) - boasting more entries than the Bible (39 and falling).

Only recently - as if to demonstrate the point - in a speech of self-justification, a song of himself couched as a retrospect and prospect on the war in Iraq and the war on terror, Tony Blair put down a marker for inclusion in some future edition. "This war is not ended," he stated, with due solemnity and syntactical contortion. "It may only be at the end of its first phase." (Thus the published text. Interestingly, either the media or the Prime Minister tried to improve it in the telling. In one widely reported version, "It may only be at the beginning of the end of the first phase.") Political editors across the land salivated like Pavlov's dog as the bell? rang with a soundbite, or at any rate the sniff of a good war.

The Churchillian echo was obligingly noted. Churchill is the mantle of choice for the latter-day war leader. High-toned phrase-making is a tall order in the era of Alastair Campbell, whose "bollocks on stilts" is somewhere near the limit of literary invention, but a smattering of blood, toil, tears and sweat can usually be relied upon to spice the rhetoric and sound, plangent, in the nation's inner ear.

But is the Blair version not a pale shadow of the original: clunking sub-Churchillian clownery that seeks exculpation by association - a lifting that fails to lift? What did the real war man say, and in what circumstances? "This is not the end. It is not the beginning of the end.

But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." HiQ glosses: "Winston Churchill, 10 Nov. 1942; The End of the Beginning (1943). Speaking of the recent British victory at El Alamein." Churchill mobilised the English language and sent it into battle (Ed Murrow?). Blair parades his conscience. Morally and rhetorically we observe a certain shrinkage. It is, as one might say, what is lost in quotation.

What distinguishes HiQ from common-or-garden dictionaries of quotations is "the authorial voice", as the compilers call it. HiQ quotations are not merely sourced but punctiliously explained, and frequently supplemented by some comment, as economical as it is pointed. The Prime Minister John Major (not to be confused with the compiler John Major, formerly reader in modern history at Hull University) in ersatz sentimental mode: "Fifty years from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county (cricket) grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and - as George Orwell said - old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist." The authorial voice: "Prime Minister John Major, speech to the Conservative Group for Europe, 22 April 1993; Jeremy Paxman, The English (1998), p. 142. The speech recalls one of Baldwin's 'fireside chats' made in 1924 that paints a similarly idyllic picture of an enduring England over which can be heard 'the corncrake on a dewy morning' (Paxman, 1998). Major was selective in his choice of imagery. Orwell actually wrote: 'The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin tables in the Soho pubs, old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn mornings, these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene.' ( The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius , 1941)." The moral: "One must be careful not to prejudge the past" (William Whitelaw).

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

History in Quotations

Author - Mark Cohen and John Major
Publisher - Cassell
Pages - 1,008
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 304 35387 6

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