Books

By Richard Lofthouse

It’s been a rich harvest of words in recent weeks at Oxford Today — but then, it usually is. Welcome, then, to the first of our new, monthly Off The Shelf column, where we round up some of the more interesting Oxonian books that have passed through our hands in the past four weeks.

This month, Princeton University Press sent us Diane Coyle’s GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History, the author a visiting research fellow at Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment. A concise but very tractable volume, it targets a statistic that governs all of us, explaining its origins in the 19th century and  its mid-20th century ‘golden age’, before concluding, as many of us may already know, that it is less and less appropriate to the slippery 21st century economy. Apparently Nollywood movies — the term re-purposes the more familiar Bollywood to a Nigerian setting — will, overnight, increase Nigeria’s GDP by as much as 40 percent this year, when the weighting and measurement of their economic contribution is registered in the official GDP statistics. The subtext here is that that Africa, or Nigeria at least, isn’t nearly as poor as we all thought, at least not uniformly so. My immediate thought was that the reverse applies, too: some countries with high official GDPs still harbour dire poverty, the UK included.

Moving on, we received David Cranston’s John Radcliffe and his Legacy to Oxford, the author a fellow of Green Templeton college. One immediate impression given by this splendid, and brief, 68-page history is of the wonderful watercolours that punctuate the words, all by Valerie Petts — initially at Oxford in the area of clinical immunology, but a full time artist since 1990. Otherwise the words are full of light and life, feisty ripostes with shoddy workmen, jokes about alcohol, and shrewd self-knowledge — such as Radcliffe’s suggestion that as a young physician he’d had twenty cures for every disease, but by old age he had instead discovered twenty diseases for every remedy, and some with none.

Another shelf-saving slip is The College Graces of Oxford and Cambridge, compiled by Reginald H. Adams (St John’s). It reproduces all the known Latin graces of Oxford and Cambridge, with parallel English translation. A work of reference and useful record of note — handy for incoming heads of house, one suspects — Adams’ introduction is not without colour. The overall effect of the book, even if you flick, is to underscore that deliciously Oxford way that colleges have evolved graces to accommodate atheists and the wider business of eating without standing on ceremony, all the while preserving a spiritual sense if you want it. So, the nineteenth century origin of the two word grace, Benedictus benedicat, translated by Adams as ‘May the Blessed One give a blessing,’ is pretty much whatever you want it to mean, as is its post-prandial counterpart, Benedicto benedicatur. Quite amazing, really.

Going far out to sea, and away from High Table as fast as the wind will carry, is David Barrie’s (Brasenose, 1972-75) Sextant. Just out in hardback and e-book, the volume coincides with the 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act of 1714 — there is a significant exhibition in July at the Maritime Museum in Greenwich for those interested in such things — and explores the origins of the sextant. The blurb says it well enough: ‘A heady mix of adventure, science, maths and extraordinary endurance, Sextant is a timeless tale of exploration; a love letter to the sea, infused with a sense of wonder and discovery.’ But I also like the sound of Barrie, who must be a proper Oxonia  because he sailed the Atlantic as a teenager and has sailed just about everywhere since, often without GPS. As if that’s not enough he was also awarded a CBE for contributions to the visual arts in 2010. Chapeau.

Image by az under Creative Commons license.