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22 December 2012

I’ve Got a Little List

Tag(s): Pedantry

As some day it may happen that a victim must be found
  I’ve got a little list—I’ve got a little list.
Of society offenders who might well be under ground
  And who never would be missed—who never would be missed.

They’ll none of them be missed.

William Schwenk Gilbert


As we approach Christmas I’m sure like me you have made lots of lists. There’s the presents you want to buy and perhaps the presents you’d like to receive. There’s the list of Christmas cards you needed to send and maybe you keep a list of those you receive to avoid embarrassing oversights. There’s the list of guests you want to invite and the list of ingredients you need to make a cake or a pudding. There’s the straightforward shopping list headed by turkey and then listing what all the trimmings actually are.

I have never really kept a diary. There was a brief period when as a presumptuous youth, full of unwarranted self-belief, I started to keep a diary full of pretentious thoughts and ridiculous predictions. This was in January 1965; it was about the same time that I started writing equally pretentious poetry. I remember writing my prospective entry in Who’s Who. Something along the lines of Oxford, called to the bar, MP, Minister, Prime Minister, that sort of thing. I did take a degree in Law from Oxford but I am glad to say the rest of it never happened. I have reached the pages of Debrett’s People of Today, the poor man’s Who’s Who, and I’ll settle for that.


My mother kept a comprehensive diary for many years. She was an excellent correspondent and kept in touch with many of her family and friends to the very end of her life. Her diary was a fascinating compendium of minutiae and observation, description of events and milestones, the weather and journey times. Her memory was excellent and I am sure that the act of committing all this to the written page aided this just as a student retains the lecture better by taking notes.

Instead of a diary I have kept copious lists. I have lists of everything, books read, plays seen, places visited; for a number of years I kept a list of movies seen and then Halliwell published his wonderful work on all the movies he had seen and it became simpler to just mark off the ones I had seen.

Freud would no doubt say that this propensity to keep lists marks some deep psychosis, probably as a result of sexual repression, or perhaps just inadequate toilet training. But then I would put Herr Freud at the top of my list of frauds.

I think it is more to do with the need to complete the challenges of life before it is over. Some of this can never be done, some can. I cannot visit all the countries of the world but I can make a good attempt and it is over 60 to date. I can never see all the games that Manchester United play but I can keep a record and thus prove my tribal loyalty. I can read every published work by Dickens and Wodehouse, see every opera by Verdi and Wagner.

I have set one personal ambition that I will never fully achieve but will have lots of fun trying. That is to see all the World Heritage sites as decided by UNESCO.  The World Heritage List includes 962 properties forming part of the cultural and natural heritage which the World Heritage Committee considers as having outstanding universal value. These include 745 cultural, 188 natural and 29 mixed properties in 157 States Parties. As of September 2012, 190 States Parties have ratified the World Heritage Convention.  When I set this ambition a few years ago there were about 750 World Heritage sites so the Committee is making it very difficult for me to achieve this particular ambition as they ratify sites faster than I can see them. But it should keep my wife and I busy for a few years yet.

The train spotter sets out to collect a batch of numbers. That has never appealed to me but I seek to collect a batch of experiences. Some of this is random. Some of this is planned. William Shakespeare wrote 37 plays and I set out to see every one in the theatre. This year I had the great pleasure of seeing one of our greatest contemporary actors Simon Russell Beale in Timon of Athens at the National Theatre. That completed the set.

I have kept a list of every book I have read since school days and my current records go back to the 1970s. Again, as thousands of books are published every year and I read about 60 or 70 then this is not about conquest or completion. Rather it is about a sense of balance in ensuring that I am reading well and not frittering the time away.

And that is the real motive. I said I do not keep a diary, but of course I do keep a business diary and have some sort of record back to 1980. Here the objective is to use limited time to the maximum advantage. This is not the motive of a Pepys or an Alan Clark. Their diaries are wonderful commentaries on the age they lived in as well as the part they played in that age. The real enemy is time and the real challenge is to beat it. In the end you will never succeed. But on the way you can have a lot of fun and satisfaction in trying.

Lists offer a great format for song writers. A list song is a song based wholly or in part on a list. List songs typically develop by working through a list, sometimes using items of escalating absurdity. I began this blog with a quote from a famous list song: Koko singing “As Some Day It May Happen” in The Mikado by Gilbert & Sullivan.  Arguably their “Major General’s Song” in The Pirates of Penzance is even more famous. Cole Porter loved the format with “You’re the Top” which has been endlessly updated and his delicious “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” which was parodied even more brilliantly by Noël Coward. Other memorable list songs from the American Songbook include “‘A’ – You’re Adorable”, “These Foolish Things”, “My Favourite Things” and “My Kind of Town (Chicago Is)” in which Frank Sinatra extolled the virtues of Chicago. More modern songwriters have used the technique like Paul Simon with “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” and Billy Joel with “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. Tom Lehrer memorably listed “The Elements” while nearly all the best known songs from “Hair” are list songs including “Ain’t Got No”, “Black Boys”, “Hair”, “Hashish”, “I Got Life”,”I’m Black/Colored Spade”, “Sodomy”, and “White Boys”. But, of course, there is nothing new under the sun. There are traditional folk list songs like “Green Grow the Rushes, O” while Mozart has Leperello list the conquests of his master Don Giovanni in “Madamina, il catalogo è questro”, (“The Catalogue Aria”). And no doubt we will all be singing “The Twelve Days of Christmas” this Christmas.

Copyright David C Pearson 2012 All rights reserved

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