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Lists

[Commissioned by The Mail On Sunday, 2002]



CHANCES are you will make a list today. Maybe a necessary list (“pay gas, electric, life insurance”). Or a useful list (“milk, teabags, 2x orange juice, 1x live pig,” &c). I've been making a list myself, but I have to admit that it's a redundant and irritating one. It's a list of things which were once necessary, then useful, and have now become redundant and irritating. So far, my list includes celebrity chefs, New Labour, and Frank Skinner. Inevitably, smack bang at number one on my list is the making of lists.
  Start with the Domesday Book. Progress by way of Dr Johnson's Dictionary. Next thing you know, we've fetched up against music channel VH1's 100 Greatest Albums Of All Time, and their 100 Most Shocking Moments In Rock'n'Roll. Mushrooming around us are Channel 4's unwieldy rosters of “greatest” films, adverts, sporting moments and assorted barrel scrapings, as chosen by you, the viewer.
  It's easy to see why these lists are so popular. They're cheap, they're facile, they feed the prevailing, insatiable appetite for nostalgic comfort telly, and they get people talking. Mainly, they get people talking in lists. Thus the whole business becomes self-perpetuating. There's no denying it. Lists are fun.
  Blame Roy Plomley. Our list fixation began with the irresistible premise of Desert Island Discs, which must have seemed harmless enough back in 1942. A mental inventory of your favourite 78s no doubt helped while away the hours spent crouching in your Anderson shelter. But by 1988, when Sue Lawley took over, we had so much time to think about trivia that we rarely thought about anything else. And anything else we did think about, we turned into trivia by putting it on a list.
  A trio of American authors must claim their share of the guilt. Back in 1977, Irving Wallace, David Wallechinsky and Amy Wallace issued a squat tome simply titled, “The Book Of Lists”. It glued itself to the US best-seller charts, spawning both a series of sequels and an ever-growing market for enumerated tallies of froth. It may not be famous in this country, but you can bet your booties that every publisher and television poobah in the land is familiar with it.
  Rarely does a formula this simple, and this easily replicated, happen along. From highbrow to nobrow, nothing is exempt. “Top Ten Symbolist Operas”? “100 Greatest Lap-Dancing Documentaries”? I give it a year - two, tops.
  These lists tend to favour matters of recent memory. Hence the extraordinary showing of Radiohead, an excellent but by no means superlative band, in pop-based charts. Or the droll notion that Star Wars is the greatest film ever made, rather than the most fondly remembered. There's also the reverse problem that, once a certain item gets lodged in the listing canon, people may carry on voting for it out of an uneasy sense of obligation. They're




not crazy about it, but it's always there, so it must be good. In the list business, this is what's known as “Sergeant Pepper Syndrome.”
  It's dubious enough to grade, sort and quantify culture. To propose that the value of a work of art can be pinpointed exactly in relation to every other work of art. But the BBC's latest wheeze - asking us to nominate our “Greatest Britons” for a forthcoming series - is more worrying still. It creates a hierarchy of heroism which obliges one to choose between “Sir Winston Churchill or Charlie Chaplin, Queen Victoria or David Beckham”, as if their achievements could be measured with an Acme Brand Universal Eminence Gauge. This is less a celebration of Britain and its past than an expression of opportunistic disdain. It turns history into the Daz Doorstep Challenge.

MAN WITH MICROPHONE: “Mrs Lump, would you swap two of your old Nye Bevans for one John Lennon?”
HOUSEWIFE: “Imagine!”

  We are in the grip of katastichophilia: an obsessive compiling of lists. What was once a tragicomic quirk of male anoraks (as per Rob Fleming, the protagonist of Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity, who endlessly catalogues his inner world) has become a pervasive reflex across both sexes. Everything can be reduced to a roll-call. Crucial subtleties are hammered into uniform blocks and lined up for brief and unedifying inspection. The inference is that the past is so solid, so settled - and our view of it so unassailable - that we can definitively assess its influence and importance from where we are standing. Put another way, lists like these are egocentric smugness made - literally - manifest.
  Happily, we can turn this tendency to our common advantage. While it seems that people will eagerly queue up to vote in a spurious rundown of pop bands, attendance at general elections - something which actually matters - is plunging. So instead of calling on the electorate to vote in the traditional way, we should publicise ballots on TV, with a holiday prize draw as further inducement: “Your Favourite Ever Political Party! As chosen by you, the viewer.”
  Turnout will probably approach 100 per cent. The contender which provokes the least disaffection - a ballot-box equivalent of Radiohead or Star Wars - will be elected. The weighting in these polls towards the contemporary should ensure that the winner is current (or at least, if it turns out to be the Tories, not technically extinct.) And in the unlikely event of, say, a Whig government being returned for the first time since 1852 - well, life would suddenly become a lot more interesting. And if life were more interesting, we wouldn't need all these lists.









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