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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: The final instalment of our WW1 series

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

Simon Usborne: The more you watch pro cycling, the more you understand its social complexity

Simon Usborne
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice