Oxford Z-A - 1000 Years of History in 26 Letters

A collaboration between comedian and writer Richard O. Smith and illustrator Korky Paul - Available at Blackwell's, ISBN: 9781909930858

December 1, 2020
A compendium of interesting facts accompanied by colourful, charming illustrations.

The Oxford Z-A is a collaboration between Richard O. Smith (comedian, scriptwriter, and author, whose words have appeared on Radio 4’s The Now Show, and The News Quiz) and Korky Paul (an illustrator known for his energetic artwork, most famously on the Winnie the Witch series of children’s books). The Z-A is a compendium of interesting facts about the history, economy, traditions, and denizens of Oxford – all accompanied by colourful, charming illustrations.

What’s most impressive about the book is the breadth of the subject matter – this is a wide-ranging, meticulously researched title, including historical anecdotes from the times of kings, queens, monks, and highwaymen (for example, outlining which Oxford hill was such a hotspot for highwaymen in the 18th Century that a surprisingly large number of students supplemented their income through a bit of part-time standing and delivery), through to modern hijinks involving the mid-noughties internet (telling the story of a 2005 prank in which one college put a rival college up for sale on eBay…resulting in a top bid of ten million pounds, and a £50 fine for the pranksters.)

The structure of the book is, as the title would suggest, alphabetical, with facts being grouped according to topic and theme rather than by rather than by chronology. This means that there are a variety of types of fact on each page - for example, a spread might feature Richard Burton and Rebellions; juxtapose Murder, Mortarboards, and Methodism; or segue from Harry Potter to Hangings. This variety works excellently, meaning that if you have a preferred type of fact, they’ll be spread throughout the book. Personally, I thought a highlight of the collection were the histories of Oxford landmarks and establishments – the section on Oxford Marmalade gives an intriguing account of the series of events which led up to the creation of the Jam Factory on Park End Street.

There’s also a quiz element to the book; each alphabetical section contains a question for the reader, with answers at the back (in section A, for Answers). This element of interactivity elevates the book from being a static list of interesting, amusing facts, to add real element of engagement for the reader.

In conclusion, this is a fun little publication, bringing to mind the golden era of QI – filled with interesting facts and historical trivia, wrapped in a lovely veneer of levity. You can tell that a lot of care has gone into both the research of the material and its presentation, with witty asides and charming illustrations really complementing each other. It might be an ideal gift for someone who is a fan of trivia, has a tie to Oxford, or just enjoys beautiful illustration.

If you want to find out more about the book, there’s a launch event at the North Wall at 7.30pm on the 8th of December, where Richard O. Smith will be performing a comic talk sharing some of the quirky facts from the collection, and Korky Paul will draw live on stage. For more Korky Paul content, you can also check out the Korky Paul: Winnie and Wilbur’s Magical Moments exhibition hosted at the North Wall’s gallery. The exhibition runs from the 4th of December until the 23 January 2021, and entry is free, but visits must be pre-booked.

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