Saturday 18 November 2006


Maybe it is something to do with an awareness of the transience of life, but we are as a species, list-makers!

Just think how many folk songs contain iventories: "Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme"; itineries: "There was an old woman who swallowed a fly..."; and much-repeated lists of Things ("This is the cow with the crumpled horn that tossed the dog, that worried the cat, that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built") and/or People:
Tom Pearce, Tom Pearce, lend me your grey mare,
All along, down along, out along lee,
Us wants to go to Widdecombe Fair

Wi' Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer,
Peter Gurney, Peter Davey,
Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all...

My fascination with lists is such that, for some time now, I've been vaguely collecting literary lists and - if one includes Gilbert & Sullivan (and I don’t see why one shouldn’t) - lyrical lists…

I mention G&S because they were always listing things - especially in their infamous "patter songs" such as 'I've Got A little List", the schedule of possible victims-for-the-chop drawn up by Ko Ko (The Lord High Executioner) in their comic opera, The Mikado...

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 underground,
And who never would be missed -- who never would be missed!

There's the banjo serenader, and the others of his race,
And the piano-organist -- I've got him on the list!
And the people who eat peppermint and puff it in your face,
They never would be missed -- they never would be missed!
Then the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone,
All centuries but this, and every country but his own;
And the lady from the provinces, who dresses like a guy,
And who "doesn't think she waltzes, but would rather like to try";
And that singular anomaly, the lady novelist--
I don't think she'd be missed -- I'm sure she'd not he missed!

And in their lesser-known operetta, The Sorcerer, the eponymous character - John Wellington Wells - has a formidable catalogue of services on offer...
Oh, my name is John Wellington Wells
I'm a dealer in magic and spells

In blessings and curses

And ever-filled purses

In prophecies, witches, and knells...

We've a first-class assortment of magic
And for raising a posthumous shade

With effects that are comic or tragic

There's no cheaper house in the trade...

Love-philtre, we've quantities of it

And for knowledge if any one burns

We keep an extremely small prophet,

Who brings us unbounded returns

For he can prophesy with a wink of his eye

Peep with security into futurity

Sum up your history, clear up a mystery

Humour proclivity for a nativity

With mirrors so magical, tetrapods tragical

Bogies spectacular, answers oracular

Facts astronomical, solemn or comical...

W S Gilbert's contemporary, Lewis Carroll, also went in for lists and none of his books have more of them than The Hunting of the Snark, of which this is one of the shorter ones - albeit repeated several times!

They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.

Of course, we’re all very familiar with the process of making lists ("Milk, eggs, bread, low-fat- low-salt-low-taste spread…" etc), but when I talk about lists I’m talking about inventories of sheer, stunning inventiveness!

For eample, how can any humble shopping-list for Tesco’s hope to compete with Ratty’s luncheon basket in (sorry to mention this book yet again) The Wind in the Willows:
"What’s inside it?” asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity.

"There’s cold chicken inside it,” replied the Rat briefly; “cold chickencoldtonguecoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscress sandwichespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater…”’

And here, to conclude, is another list, this time from that incomparable nabob of nonsense, Mr Edward Lear, and his account of the travels of ‘The Jumblies’...

Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.

They sailed to the Western Sea, they did,
To a land all covered with trees,
And they bought an Owl, and a useful Cart,
And a pound of Rice, and a Cranberry Tart,
And a hive of silvery Bees.
And they bought a Pig, and some green Jack-daws,
And a lovely Monkey with lollipop paws,
And forty bottles of Ring-Bo-Ree,
And no end of Stilton Cheese.

Now that is what I call a serious shopping expedition!

[Images: Widdecombe Fair-goers by Alan Young Pottery; Stephen Quint as Ko Ko (photograph: Michael Nemeth) in the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players' production of The Mikado; illustrations to The Hunting of the Snark by Henry Holiday, The Wind in the Willows by E H Shepard and The Jumblies by Ian Beck]


Anonymous said...

Strange that you should choose this time of year for that list! 6 weeks to go until Christmas, and I start making lists of lists: cards to send, presents to make, presents to buy, things to do, things to buy, things to cook... I have to admit to being a compulsive list maker, I have a couple in front of me now: list of all sorts for my charity do this evening and a list of words to look up in greater detail that what the OED can offer. The list of my lists is endless... makes me feel rather listless...

Brian Sibley said...

GILL (who is not a blogger and so couldn't leave her comment personally) said...

"I had to tell you that on my desk at the moment are these lists:

Tomorrow's shopping
Monday's shopping
People I need to ring
Packing list for w.c. 4 Dec
Ditto for w.c. 11 Dec
Christmas presents bought
Ditto to buy
Christmas cards [personal]
Ditto professional
Cards to go abroad
Christmas food shopping
Card writing schedule
Wrapping schedule
Things I must accomplish next week [which I have off]...

Quite a respectable list of lists don't you think?!"

Brian Sibley said...

I feel so guilty by the activity of all these listers, that I've started a list of my own:



This is, of course, just a beginning...