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NONFICTION : THE OXFORD BOOK OF BRITISH POLITICAL ANECDOTES, edited by Paul Johnson (Oxford: $17.95; 270 pp.).

January 18, 1987|Charles Champlin

It's a commendable job of retrieval; the bibliography cites more than 80 authors, often represented by multi-volume works. Yet this is not exactly Bennett Cerf time, a garland of snappy one-liners and put-downs, although there are a few, none more zesty than Winston Churchill's famous remark that Clement Attlee was a modest man, who had much to be modest about.

More often Paul Johnson offers vignettes of several hundred years' worth of British kings, courtiers and ministers at work and play. It is very British, and those who aren't into Castlereagh, Canning, Cromwell and Cripps may grow restless. Leon A. Harris' "The Fine Art of Political Wit" (Dutton, 1964) celebrated both British and American political wit and was a treasury of Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy quotes.

Yet the Johnson book offers moments of considerable charm, as in the glimpse of the wife of Foreign Secretary Lord Home whispering, "Peiping, Peiping, Peiping" as they descend from the aircraft to the waiting dignitaries, lest he say how glad he is to be back in Montreal, or Rome, or Moscow. There are a couple of nice stories about Churchill, that most anecdotal of British figures. He remarked to a friend that he was glad not to have had to deal with the Korean situation. 'The old man has been good to me," Churchill added. "What old man?" asked the friend. "God," Churchill explained.

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