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Matthew Parris

Why it’s time to revive the commonplace book

A collection often tells us more, unwittingly, about its compiler than a self-description would

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

Among the gifts that have come my way this Christmas season, none has given me pleasure more immediate or more lasting than Kenneth Baker’s new commonplace book, More Rags of Time.

I dislike the title. It sounds precious, as does Lord Wavell’s famous and wonderful poetry anthology Other Men’s Flowers; or Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. Perhaps it’s inherently difficult to find a name that personalises what, by definition, isn’t yours. Scrapbooks are collections of things that are unrelated except by being regarded as delights by their collector.

And Kenneth (Lord) Baker, who was  Margaret Thatcher’s technology supremo and education secretary and John Major’s home secretary, and is a godfather of the cartoonist’s art and a 21st-century evangelist for university technical colleges (UTCs), has collected not rags but riches. This is a short collection of some of the short quotations from others that in his 80 years (so far) have caught Baker’s attention, commanded his respect or simply made him smile.

So despite the title I opened it, and saw on the title page that the book is published in a limited edition and so probably cannot be bought. All the more reason, then, to tell you about it. I felt privileged to have received a copy, and read on.

From the very first page the wisdom is astringent, sometimes cynical, sometimes rueful, usually kindly and always amused. Here I read ‘Better sitt still than rise and fall’ — from Francis Bacon, James I’s humane Lord Chancellor whose life rose high and fell in ruins and demonstrated the truth of what, a couple of pages on, H.L. Mencken reminds us: ‘When I hear a man applauded by the mob I always feel a pang of pain for him. All he has to do to be hissed is to live long enough.’


It would be unkind, then, to send this anthology to Nick Clegg for Christmas 2014. Hopefully it will be unkind to send it to Nigel Farage for Christmas 2015, and if I have that pleasure I shall inscribe the gift with a remark whispered by the ancient Greek statesman Phocion to his friend, Diogenes Laertius, as the crowd applauded his speech: ‘Have I said something foolish?’

The compilation of commonplace books has fallen from custom. It used to be the habit of youth to begin assembling, and a habit of old age to publish, a lifelong collection of things that have meant something to us, our favourites: witty, moving, wise, curious or simply useful. Perhaps we have no time now, or perhaps we’d have no readers. Perhaps, even, we have become arrogant and wish only to provide platforms for our own reflections, not those of others.

But why should I suppose any of my own remarks worth repetition when we have P.G. Wodehouse, of whose ‘Unseen in the background, Fate was quietly slipping lead into the boxing glove’ and of whose ‘It is no good telling me that there are bad aunts and good aunts. At the core, they are all alike. Sooner or later, out pops the cloven hoof’ Lord Baker reminds us. I can almost hear his worldly chuckle as I write this.

In fact there’s something (in the most mellow sense of the word) worldly in the spirit of this whole collection. Baker’s own life reminds me of that marriage of world-liness with vision, of the good heart with the sceptical eye, that steals upon some of our most impressive leaders as the years roll by. ‘Never be a pioneer: the Early Christian gets the fattest lion,’ Baker smiles, in company with Saki whom he is quoting.

Yet Kenneth has been a pioneer, a missionary in the ninth decade of his life for a new kind of school, the UTC, which he bullied me into visiting and which has changed my view of the possibilities of secondary education. Great causes need missionaries. Baker quotes G.K. Chesterton: ‘I’ve searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues of committees.’

Here, then, is the apparent paradox of the commonplace book, and one of the reasons I should like to see the literary institution revived. A collection often tells us more, unwittingly, about the collector than we could learn were he or she to attempt their own self-description. Kenneth’s own delight in his Spitting Image puppet as a giant slug betrays a lovely sense of self-mockery, a small dash of vanity, and a keen critical appreciation of satire. His published collections of the work of 18th-century English cartoonists show the delight he takes in impertinence.

To read Francis Bacon’s own commonplace book, The Promus of Formularies and Elegancies, a collection of passages and phrases Bacon made to assist his own essay-writing and speechmaking, helps us understand a man some of whose life was mysterious, and who was not inclined to psycho-analyse himself. An anthology places the reader on the psychiatrist’s couch.

Such a reader, for instance, on reading Denis Healey’s wonderful My Secret Planet, would see a different man from the rumbunctuous former chancellor: a man for whom this profound passage from the 17th-century mystical writer Thomas Traherne, had meant something in his life:

You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars; and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.

Lord Healey traced his whole life through passages he chose. Now that I’m getting old a more modest ambition occurs: a collection of all of those passages in George Eliot’s work that mean most to me. But I don’t suppose the plan will ever bear fruit; and even if it did, would anyone buy the book?

Kenneth Baker (in the words of Alan Bennett) suggests his own answer to that: ‘I am now 80, an age that entitles one to be listened to, though not necessarily heeded.’

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