Teatime at the offices of the Oxford English Dictionary in the 1980s resembled a scene from a Barbara Pym novel. It was taken in the ground-floor room of a grand Georgian building in St Giles’, Oxford, in which millions of slips sent in by volunteer readers filled large grey filing cabinets. In every other office where John Simpson had worked, stock conversation covered football, what had been on television the previous evening and work colleagues. ‘I never heard any of these topics raised at the dictionary tea,’ he writes.
On a good day there might be a conversation between Robert Burchfield, the chief editor, who’d worked on the dictionary since 1957, and his deputy, John Sykes. Burchfield was discursive and historically minded, Sykes laconic and dry. ‘Their exchanges’, Simpson writes, ‘resembled casual chats between Captain Kirk and