Lists: thank your lucky stars if you're not on one
Suddenly everything, no matter how trivial or private, must be marked or given a percentage
The writer and broadcaster Terence Blacker contributes a twice-weekly column on a wide range of social, cultural and environmental issues. He is the author of four novels, of prize-winning fiction for children, and has written a highly praised biography of the brilliant reprobate Willie Donaldson.
Thursday 05 August 1999
Pathetic. Adolescent. Surely by now they have learnt that such matters do not lend themselves to mathematical analysis. When Georges Simenon claimed that he had, to use a peculiarly inappropriate euphemism, slept with 10,000 women, he was ridiculed as a fantasist, a sex addict or both. On the other hand, the reputation of the pearly-toothed DJ Tony Blackburn never quite recovered from his alleged score of 250 - for a man who had been spinning the turntables through the Sixties and Seventies, that somehow seemed rather feeble.
The problem is that suddenly numbers are everywhere. Everything, no matter how trivial or private, must be classified, marked or given a percentage. Over the last couple of months we have been awash with idiotic lists. Mojo magazine's "Top 100 Singers Of All Time" surprisingly included at number 25 Tom Waits, who has never knowingly hit the right note in his life. The Sun's "100 Reasons Why It's Great To Be English" contained fewer surprises: the Queen Mother ("The essential English lady who is our favourite Royal") took the top spot, Shakespeare ("Currently the toast of Hollywood") came in at number 9, with Bingo ("The national indoor pastime") at 30, and Melinda Messenger ("Two of England's greatest assets") at 64.
Other lists have been downright irritating. The Guinness Book of Hit Singles proclaimed "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley as the greatest single of all time, while International Who's Who included Donald Bradman and Lord Mountbatten in its list of the century's most influential people, but excluded Bob Dylan. So it goes on, day after day: Tatler's 200 top party guests, The Observer's 20 writers for the next millennium (which included one writer who had written a single book of short stories and then retired from writing).
Some will put all this down to millennial craziness, dismiss it as a harmless by-product of the new obsession with science, but there is something reductive about our new need to put a number on everything. Not so long ago, opinion polls were used to discover how people intended to vote or how they rated the performance of senior ministers. Today no news report or documentary is complete without a few vox pop percentages - we are invited to vote on everything from whether the England cricket captain should be fired to the bombing of Kosovo. Behind the list-building is a creeping pressure to join the consensus.
A relatively minor example of the process has been evident during the current literacy campaign for the National Year of Reading. Celebrity readers have been canvassed, lists of recommended books drawn up. Waterstone's, the bookshop chain, produced a booklet in which authors passed on their suggestions for classics of the future, and soon the concept of the classic was being widely discussed - as if a special class of book now existed, one that was not merely brilliant, well-written or full of truth but which transcended other books and acquired a higher, socially approved status. It was an idea for suburbanites and dullards, for people who like books to be solid, reliable and morally improving, and feel comfortable when they are graded, like the weekly Top 40 of "soothing" music on Classic FM.
The effect of this literary apartheid on young readers was almost entirely negative. At a school I visited last year I met an 11-year-old girl who enjoyed reading my books but who was unable to take one home because her father had initiated a strict, classics-only policy and most of the books his daughter enjoyed were judged beyond the pale. Now and then, when talking to a class about writing, I am asked whether my ambition is for one of my books to become a classic, as if this is the ambition of every writer.
No prizes for guessing what campaign will follow the National Year of Reading. A year of numeracy will soon be upon us, led by the ubiquitous Carol Vorderman, who has already begun appearing in magazines, sporting on her arm a heart-shaped tattoo bearing the word "SUMS". Soon more lists, percentages, classifications and polls will be hemming us in, reducing us all to numbers and driving us mad.
Threesomes count double, by the way.
Miles Kington is on holiday
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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