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28 December 2002

12:00 AM

28 December 2002

12:00 AM

PHRASE, SAYING AND QUOTATION edited by Susan Ratcliffe

OUP, pp.696, 19.99

The fine, rusty-gold building of the University Press presides over Walton Street in Oxford with its more monumental than collegiate presence. The touchstone of literacy in homes all over the world will be an Oxford dictionary, compact, shorter or the full, distinguished thing. The livery of the press is recognisable everywhere, ultramarine and gold. Reliably compendious, with such indiosyncratic flowerings as Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of Modern Verse, the backlist of the Press fills a worthy niche for the second-hand bookshop browser.

The OUP’s own bookshop on the High in Oxford is, however, rather different. The assistants are young, helpful, conceivably not overlavishly paid. The beautifully printed Oxford University Gazette may be purchased, at 75p. But there is a thinness of atmosphere, a sense that less profitable academic byways are being allowed to fall to grass and desuetude. There is little sense of the great luxury of intellectual wandering, even trespass. The space between, as in the old department stores, is being filled with regulated choice and clamorous piles of brightly coloured commodities, in this case books.

The present volume looks pretty horrible. Perhaps someone has decided that minor English artists’ depictions of ladies at leisure flog thick books? This one has one such in high neoclassical casuals about to play her pipe to her caged thrush. The surroundings combine marble and mosaic. The puff from the Sunday Telegraph adds to the middle-range luxury bathroom effect: ‘An instant pearl for every occasion’. We are in after-dinner territory.

Within, things do not appear to be much better. The ‘proverbs’ and ‘sayings’ are introduced first within each category, then the ‘phrases’. A tiring sans-serif typeface, reminiscent of restaurant fliers, unbalances the look of the pages.

So much for how it looks. What of its structure? Is it necessary? Who is it for? Are such books as this not, in fact, the recourse of the idle and the resource of the pompous and ignorant? Don’t lazy speechifiers and wordy makeweights reach for compendia such as this, spared the hunt through primary sources, aware that borrowed knowledge will impress those who know less than they do?

So I thought, as I approached this book. I’d speculated that one solid, if not that big, market for it would be those embodiments of reinforced smugness, Daily Mail journalists. Do you read the Mail? Have you observed how no one admits to reading it or buying it unless they are blessedly bereft of self-consciousness or wholly converted. The most people will admit to is ‘seeing’ it. This implies impermeability to its corrosive attitudes. I like to think I take the beastly thing homeopathically as I feel it working its damage. So, approaching this bright and fleshy volume with its Mailish packaging aimed at middle-aged and middle-sized women, I went at it via some subjects dear to the Mail – family, childcare, education, the net, church, nation

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