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The commonplace book that was legendary in literary London

The publisher John G. Murray – known as Jock – was a renowned wit and raconteur in literary London of the 20th century ... and his commonplace book became legendary in his lifetime.

Whenever he came across something that tickled his fancy – something wise, inspiring, funny or odd – he would scribble it into a little blue notebook he always kept in his inside jacket pocket.

Later, when he had time, he would copy out the contents into his bigger commonplace book at home.

Friends and literary acquaintances helped to keep it topped up – the explorer Freya Stark sent contributions from Arabia, the newspaper cartoonist Osbert Lancaster would pop in most evenings on his way back from the Daily Express, or John Benjamin would arrive with news of an interesting discovery.

A Gentleman Publisher's Commonplace Book

After Murray died in 1993, his son John published a selection in a wonderful book – A Gentleman Publisher's Commonplace Book – with illustrations his father had been given by the likes of Osbert Lancaster, artist Beryl Cook, Orlando author and illustrator Kathleen Hale and painter and designer John Piper.

It's a joy to dip in to. As his son writes in the introduction, the true pleasure of a commonplace book is the random nature of its contents: "The intention is for you to 'surf' it and discover your own favourites," he says.

Here's a dozen random entries:

'If you do not expect the unexpected you will never find it.'

– Heraclitus, quoted by Freya Stark

'The art of hospitality is to make guests feel at home when you wish they were.'

'Her journalism, like a diamond, will sparkle more if it is cut'

– Raymond Mortimer on Susan Sontag.

'Stealing from one source is plagiarism, while stealing from many is research.'

'I feel that one lies to oneself more than to anyone else'

– Byron

'Life is what happens when you're making other plans.'

– John Lennon

On the debate as to who wrote Shakespeare's sonnets: 'If they were not by Shakespeare, then they were by someone of the same name.'

'There is less to him than meets the eye."

– Tallulah Bankhead

'If you know nothing about people, you can believe anything about them.'

– Dervla Murphy in Tales from Two Cities referring to racial minorities in inner cities

'Father doesn't hear what Mother says, and Mother hears what Father does not say.'

'God makes a man lose his donkey so that he can give him the pleasure of finding it again.'

– Turkish proverb

What the brassiere said to the top hat: 'You go on ahead while I give these two a lift.'

– Told to the ambassador in Cairo in 1942 by Freya Stark. It shocked him.

John G. Murray was the sixth John Murray to run the publishing house, which was established in 1768 and was responsible for many iconic books including  Lord Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Jane Austen's Emma, and Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species.


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