Listellany: A miscellany of Very British Top 10s

There’s nothing as important as trivia, argues John Rentoul. To prove his point, he’s compiled a book of it. General knowledge will never be the same

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The Independent Culture

Lists are the future of journalism, the internet and therefore the world. Also, they are the past. Ten-part lists have been the rage since Moses came down from the mountain.

For the past year and a half I have compiled my own Top 10s on the inside back page of The New Review, our Sunday magazine (today it is the Top 10 First Sentences in Works of Non-Fiction). Now the best of them have been collected in a book, Listellany: A Miscellany of Very British Top 10s, from Politics to Pop, from which I offer you the Top 10 Top 10s.

Is it not fascinating that trivia is a late Latin plural of trivium, a place where three (tri) roads (via) meet? The trivium was an introductory course at a medieval university, consisting of three subjects, grammar, rhetoric and logic, as opposed to the heavy stuff, the quadrivium, which was the meeting place of the four “mathematical arts”, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. From which derived the adjective trivial, which influenced the coining in the early 20th century of trivia, literally “places where three roads meet”.

When I found that out, my life was turned upside down. I would have guessed that trivia had something to do with the word trifle. But a trip to the online Oxford dictionary, one of the glories of our age, tells me that trifle is from the Old French trufle, a form of trufe, deceit, of unknown origin.

Now, if anyone dismisses something as trivial, I take it seriously. Trivia is (or are) important. Trivia is (or are) defined for me now as the basics, the stuff on which everything else is built. Trivia means learning, and not the kind of learning designed to prepare young people for the world of offering to make the tea at the right time, but real education, the joy of finding things out for the sake of it.

If only I had known the origin of the word trivia when I compiled my Top 10 Unexpected Etymologies – although my favourite in that category is also rather wonderful: tawdry. It is a 17th-century shortening of “tawdry lace”, itself a contraction of St Audrey’s lace, after the patron saint of Ely, where cheap finery was sold at a fair.

5. Genuine shop names: Sell Fridges (closed last year), in Stoke Newington, London

The other reason I like compiling lists, to be blunt, is the naked abuse of power. When I compiled the Top 10 First Sentences of Novels, many readers nominated A Tale of Two Cities – you know, “best of times ... worst of times”. It gave me pleasure to reject that. Worst of sentences, certainly. When I did the Top 10 Great Bands With Terrible Names, I could reject the Beatles, which is a truly awful pun (beat, beetles, see?), on the grounds that they weren’t a great band. I was a Stones fan almost as strongly as I was a Chip-ite rather than a Whizz-kid.

My love of lists is part of my conviction that the internet makes us cleverer and happier. One of my early Top 10s was Unsung Villains, which allowed me to exercise my prejudice that John F Kennedy was one of the worst and sleaziest people ever to be in power. But it also prompted informed and thoughtful discussion about the historical vices and virtues of Richard Lionheart, Erich Ludendorff, Eamon de Valera and Guy Fawkes.

People sometimes dismiss Twitter and list-based journalism as trivialising. But they simply do not know the meaning of the word.

‘Listellany: A Miscellany of Very British Top 10s, from Politics to Pop’ is published this week by Elliott & Thompson, £9.99, and as an e-book, £4.99.

The book contains 64 Top 10s: here are John Rentoul’s 10 favourite lists, and his favourite item from each list.

1 Surprisingly unrelated pairs of words

Male and female. Nothing to do with each other. From unrelated Latin roots masculus and femella, diminutive of femina. Unlike man and woman, which are related: man and wife-man in Old English.

2 Signs with double meanings

This door is alarmed. But the sign doesn’t say what is bothering it.

3 First sentences of novels

“If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.” Saul Bellow, Herzog.

4 Replies to heckles

“The Government has no plans to increase public expenditure on Vietnam,” said Harold Wilson at a public meeting. “Rubbish!” someone shouted. “I’ll come to your special interest in a minute, sir,” replied the Prime Minister.

5 Genuine shop names

Melon Cauli, a greengrocer in Pheasey, Birmingham, was my favourite (the sign also says, “funeral work undertaken”), but I also liked Napoleon Boiler Parts in Alton, Hampshire, and Sell Fridges, which closed last year, in Stoke Newington, north London.

10. Laws of Life: Godwin’s Law i.e. “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”

6 Palindromes

“Satan oscillate my metallic sonatas.” Devised by Stephen Fry. I had some wonderful nominations for this one, including the only cabinet minister with a palindromic name, Lord Glenelg, Whig Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, 1835-39. But Samuel Hudson warned that too many palindromes might trigger an attack of “aibohphobia”.

7 Unisex names of MPs

Did you know there was a Labour MP (1929-31 and 1940-55) called Hyacinth Morgan, who was a man? (And another, 1945-49, called Meredith Titterington?)

8 Political myths

When Chinese premier Zhou Enlai was asked in 1971 about the effect of the French Revolution and said it was “too early to say”, it was all a misunderstanding. He thought he was being asked about the impact of the student riots three years before.

9 Stupid car names

Mazda Bongo Friendee. Quite magnificent in its multiple strangeness. There is a companion model called the Mazda Bongo Brawny. Better known in this country are the Nissan Qashqai, and the Ford Ka, which was drily witty once, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

10 Laws of life

Many people have heard of Godwin’s Law (“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”) and Muphry’s Law (“If you write something criticising editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written”), but I also rather like Poe’s Law, which did not make my original Top 10: “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humour, it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing.”

9. Stupid car names: The Nissan Qashqai, (above). Not quite as bad as the Mazda Bongo Friendee

A new exclusive Top 10

Upbeat songs that tell a sad story

Rafael Behr, who was political editor of the New Statesman, asked if there were a word for “uptempo, happy-sounding pop songs that actually tell a sad story”, such as “Up the Junction”, by Squeeze. No, but I have a little list of examples.

1 “Mrs Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel: Sounds like jaunty pop; tells a story of fear and alienation.

2 “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself” by Elton John.

3 “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” by The Beatles. A cheery little tune about a serial killer.

4 “Don’t Stop” by Fleetwood Mac. About singer-songwriter Christine McVie’s feelings after her separation from John McVie, the band’s bass guitarist. But because it sounds cheerful and optimistic, it was the theme song for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. It was played by the Conservatives last week after David Cameron’s conference speech in Birmingham.

5 “Viva la Vida” by Coldplay. Named after a painting by Frida Kahlo who had polio and a broken spine, and about her overcoming chronic pain. Another odd song to use on a political occasion, it was played when Ed Miliband won the Labour leadership.

6 “She Called Up” by Crowded House. A jaunty number about the suicide of their drummer.

7 “You’re an Embarrassment” by Madness. Written by Lee Thompson, the band’s saxophone player, about the response of his wider family to the news of his teenage sister’s pregnancy by a black man.

8 “Girlfriend in a Coma” by The Smiths. The happiest sounding song about a dying partner.

9 “Five Get Over Excited” by the Housemartins. They were killed in the car-crash, dumped in a river and poisoned over dinner. Possibly not in that order.

10 “Positively 4th Street” by Bob Dylan. Jangly folk-rock guitar juxtaposed with four minutes of lyrical vitriol.

‘Listellany: A Miscellany of Very British Top 10s, from Politics to Pop’ is published this week by Elliott & Thompson, £9.99, and as an e-book, £4.99.