Matthew Parris 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

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.

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