The magazine that accompanied Saturday’s edition of The Times was full of lists. Each of the regular journalists contributed an article based on them, presumably to show solidarity with a population that is currently either toiling away at compiling Christmas lists or trudging through the streets to fulfil them as December sets in and we realise – indeed are perpetually being reminded by the media – that there are only x shopping days left. To be honest, the result is a bit contrived, though some of the lists – especially Caitlin Moran’s – are great fun. That said, I’ve long had a fascination with lists myself. Consciously, it dates back to my student days, when I remember that my tutor drew attention to James Joyce’s magnificent series of lists in Ulysses. “They may look effortless or random,” he told us, in his mildly admonishing way, “but just try writing lists to equal them yourself. You’ll find out then that only a genius can produce lists like Joyce’s.”
Whatever the truth of this, some of Joyce’s lists are indeed difficult to surpass. One of my favourites is the list that begins as a pastiche of a passage from the King James Bible and reaches its climax with the following description of Leopold Bloom, fleeing through the streets of Dublin from a hostile reception:
“And they beheld Him even Him, ben Bloom Elijah, amid clouds of angels ascend to the glory of the brightness at an angle of fortyfive degrees over Donohoe’s in Little Green Street like a shot off a shovel.”
Lists were a part of my life long before I read that, of course. I belonged to a generation whose mothers sent us up to the corner shop at a very tender age, a note tucked into a purse that also contained exactly the right money to pay for the items listed. And, as well as shopping lists and Christmas lists, there were birthday lists, lists of people you wanted to come to your party (always more than you were allowed to invite), lists of books you wanted from the library and, on a more mundane note, the elaborate lists of ‘essential’ clothes and equipment that were part of the rite of passage of first attending a grammar school. Later, as my friends and I married, there were wedding lists – a phenomenon to which I’ve never been able to reconcile myself. The French go in for them in an even bigger way than we do: the poshest linen and china shops in France all carry ‘listes de mariages’ signs in the windows. But I’ve always thought that wedding lists are too specific, and therefore slightly off-colour, not to say mercenary. For example, it may be fine to tell your future wedding guests that you would like tea-cups, but it surprises me that accepted etiquette also allows you to specify ‘Wedgwood Daisy Tea Story’, or some such. It’s like smiling at someone while you’re simultaneously twisting her arm halfway up her back: ‘You will buy me this china, each set of six cups and saucers costing an eye-watering £240, because I have invited you to my wedding.’
Nevertheless, lists, both your own and other people’s, are mesmerising, and since I’m sure The Times has not devoted a whole magazine to them on a whim, I’m clearly not alone in thinking so. I’m not sure why this should be. Perhaps it’s because a list combines comprehensiveness with brevity. An eclectic list also allows the reader a tantalising, if puzzling, glimpse of its author’s mind:
“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “To talk of many things: Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax– Of cabbages–and kings– And why the sea is boiling hot– And whether pigs have wings.”
Lists can be sinister as well as humorous; they can help you to cope with everyday irritations; they can soothe by striking a common chord with the rest of humanity:
“I’ve got a little list–I’ve got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground,
And who never would be missed–who never would be missed!
There’s the pestilential nuisances who write for autographs–
All people who have flabby hands and irritating laughs–
All children who are up in dates, and floor you with ’em flat–
All persons who in shaking hands, shake hands with you like _that_–
And all third persons who on spoiling tête-a-têtes insist–
They’d none of ’em be missed–they’d none of ’em be missed!”
And despite what my tutor averred, I think that compiling a list is an excellent way of achieving literary distinction without having to try too hard. It allows its author to give free rein to his or her imagination without having to take on the full responsibility of plot, characterisation or format. In order to create a list all you need to do is, as the saying goes, empty your head on to the paper. Though, with even half an eye on prosperity, you’re likely to want to tweak your list a little before you show it to anyone else.
I’m going to indulge myself by concluding with a bit of a digression. It’s about the word ‘list’ itself. It’s one of those words that has multiple meanings. Thus boats list when they’re sinking. Knights jousted in the lists. And ‘list’ was an archaic word for ‘please’. I love words like this! And since today’s has been a post full of quotations, I’ve chosen a suitably gnomic one that uses a different meaning for list, to conclude:
“Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. Nicodemus answered and said unto him, ‘How can these things be?’”.
Happy Christmas shopping! Don’t forget your list – you might not survive Christmas without it! 😉