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

SOMETHING rather odd is happening. Two of my friends - mature, intelligent, previously responsible men - have taken to ringing one another up and arguing over the number of women with whom they claim to have slept. One of them had pitched in with a plucky, if implausible, 300. Soon ancient diaries were being consulted, calculators deployed. Arcane matters of classification were discussed. One of them, somewhat boastfully, wondered how a threesome should be computed.

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

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones