John Walsh: 'My daughter's Christmas list appears to solicit a profusion of luxury goods'

Tales of the City

Share
Related Topics

I have before me a handwritten list of 20 objects, ranged down the page in a teenage scrawl. They appear to solicit a profusion of luxury objects:

"Cath Kidston knitting kit
XL jar of fizzy sweets
Laptop and case
Daisy (perfume) by Marc Jacobs
Fake fur jacket ... "

with an airy confidence that the list-maker will get everything she asks for.

It's a dismaying document (the total cost, I nervously estimate, would be in the region of £5,000), but without it, I'd spend days wondering what my daughter wants for Christmas. Now that I know, I'm alarmed by its open-endedness. Since she whimsically fancies so many things (an inner voice tells me,) she's capable of wanting a thousand others that haven't occurred to her yet. So this group of 20 apparently random consumer requirements ("...Shu Uemera mascara, pedicure, tortoise...") doesn't represent the sum of her desires, only a tiny corner of them. There's an unvoiced et cetera at the end of every list like this one. It's an expression of apparent finitude that's really a synecdochic nod towards infinity.

You think I'm making heavy weather of the children's Christmas lists? You probably haven't yet read Umberto Eco's magisterial new work, The Infinity of Lists, from Homer to Joyce. It's wonderful, inspiring, suggestive, magisterial, pretentious – but I mustn't make a list of its virtues; that would be weird. Eco inspects lists of angels in Dante's Paradiso, lists of mythical beasts in medieval bestiaries, deranged taxonomies of insects or fossils in naturalists' collections, cabinets of curiosities, inventories of obscure plants, processions of ships into battle, even catalogues of books in a library. After a while, everything looks like a list.

His book is illustrated with paintings that show hundreds of variants of people or things (Bosch's damned souls, Warhol's Campbell soup tins), like visual corollaries of written lists. He brings in movies (like the geometrically arrayed, identical girls in Busby Berkeley epics), even catwalk shows with their lists of 20 models coming and going endlessly.

His thesis seems to be that "a culture prefers enclosed, stable forms [of art] when it is sure of its own identity, whereas, when faced with a jumbled accumulation of ill-defined phenomena, it starts making lists." Heaven knows if that's historically true, but it's certainly true at Christmas.

It's not just Santa who's making a list and checking it twice. Everyone's doing it. The children's lists are magnetised to the fridge. The socially adept are making lists of Christmas-card recipients, and lists of guests (not necessarily the same people) to invite for New Year's Eve. Restaurants are full of business colleagues scanning wine lists and weighing the chances of a snog in the car park. Supermarkets are full of shoppers with lists of things never consumed in the rest of the year (walnuts, Stilton, candied oranges, port, goose fat, Baileys Irish Cream). Across the nation, amateur cooks are digging out lists of ingredients for fruit cakes weighing several kilos. The run-up to Christmas Day becomes a countdown, a list of temporal imperatives, to do with stuffing, basting and not panicking.

In our moments of respite, we look up the Christmas chapter of The Pickwick Papers and read the most inveterate list-maker in English literature as he gets stuck into the wassailing, the puddings, the mistletoe, the turkeys and the 200 other details of conviviality which (Dickens probably doesn't need Professor Eco to explain this) may sound like an exhaustive inventory, but are a gigantic hint that there's far more stuff around, more cakes and games and kisses and songs than can possibly be itemised, and that the jollity of Christmas is, in fact, infinite.

That's lists for you: emblems of wild profusion masquerading as expressions of calm order. Eco quotes a bit in Homer's Iliad where he tries to describe the alarming size of the Greek navy on the shore. It is, he says, not possible to name them all, "not even had I ten tongues and ten mouths". Instead he just names the captains and the ships, and it takes him 350 verses. The reader has to imagine the full horror of of the sight -- like me contemplating my daughter's list of Yuletide requirements and wondering at the appalling infinity that lurks beyond it.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Read Next
'Our media are suffering a new experience: not fear of being called anti-Semitic'  

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk
David Cameron (pictured) can't steal back my party's vote that easily, says Nigel Farage  

Cameron’s benefits pledge is designed to lure back Ukip voters. He’ll have to try harder

Nigel Farage
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices