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

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Assistant

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have previous experience...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Shia LaBeouf is one of Brad Pitt's favourite actors in the world ever, apparently  

Shia LaBeouf to Luis Suárez: Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Ellen E Jones
Gwyneth Paltrow and Coldplay's Chris Martin “consciously uncoupled” in March  

My best and worst stories of 2014

Simmy Richman
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015