Howard Jacobson: Here was me thinking they were sad, and they thought I was even sadder

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I'm surprised we've all had so much trouble grasping the joys of plane-spotting. I'm not surprised the Greeks are surprised: the Greeks are an ancient and once-great people to whom nothing has happened in a thousand years – everything must come as a surprise to them.

I'm surprised we've all had so much trouble grasping the joys of plane-spotting. I'm not surprised the Greeks are surprised: the Greeks are an ancient and once-great people to whom nothing has happened in a thousand years – everything must come as a surprise to them. But to us, in our deluded self-importance, plane-spotting ought not to be mysterious. It is about possession through knowledge. The world is large and we are small, and if there's any measure we can take to bring at least one aspect of it under our control – planes, trains, famous people – we will take it.

Think lists. I've listed everything in my time. When I was small and liable to be fractious on family outings my parents would hand me a notebook and a pen and tell me to write down the number plates of every car we overtook, and then of every car that overtook us. Not number plates with specific features – not personalised or accidentally jocose number plates, like SALMAN 1, or BUM 69 – just number plates, all number plates.

At first I saw only futility in this, and suffered the humiliation that comes with knowing you are being humoured. "Don't patronise me," I used to cry. "I wasn't born in misery, circumcised and fed mashed prunes, then dragged around the country in a shooting-brake which makes me travel sick, in order to write down number plates. And if I was then I would rather I hadn't been born at all."

But soon the avidity of the collector took possession of me and my imagination began to riot in the possibility of one day "owning" all the number plates in the world. Quite what influence that would win me I wasn't sure, but I think I imagined myself as a sort of Goldfinger in the making, someone at who's say-so the world's transport system would either function or would not. Such is the power of lists.

Eventually my parents grew alarmed by my absorption in number plates and took away my notebooks. It didn't matter. I was satisfied I had completed my task by then, anyway, and suspected I was writing down numbers I already had. Besides, there were new modalities out there, challenging by virtue of their independence of me, and therefore crying out to be catalogued into my control.

Of these, one in particular stood out, not least as it was enlivened by rivalry. At exactly the same hour, my friend Gabriel and I found ourselves threatened by the amount of stray knowledge there was in the world, and at exactly the same hour we decided to set about listing it. Books were our chosen method of ordering the chaos: we would assume that all knowledge was to be found in books and we would race each other to see who could come to possess – that's to say to write down – the greatest number of book titles.

It was probably girls, and the need to list the number of times we'd kissed one, that finally put paid to this competition, though I recall disagreements over the parameters long before that. In my view, for example, Gabriel was cheating by writing down titles of books which he had found in the backs of other books. I believed you had to see a book with your own eyes – in a bookshop or on a library shelf – before you could claim it. Gabriel refused to accept there was any difference, philosophically, between seeing on a shelf and seeing in a book – both, surely, were identical acts of personal discovery. And, while he was at it, he contested Gone With The Wind, not because I had – inadvertently, I assure you – entered it twice, but because it wasn't a book in the sense we had agreed, not a repository of knowledge.

After which, of course, it was impossible for us to proceed. You can no more go on spotting books once there's disagreement as to what a book is, than you can go on spotting planes once someone has insisted a Chinook isn't one, or Superman is.

How autograph-hunters decide who is and who is not a celebrity worth nabbing, I do not know, even though I collected autographs myself once. Every now and then one falls out of some old correspondence – a pink card on which is written "Chin up, Howard, Charlie Caroli", or a photo signed "Lita Roza, with all my love" – but the circumstances by which I came by them, or why I wanted them, are forgotten. Some Saturday mornings I walk past those stage-door Johnnies who gather outside Broadcasting House in all weathers, waiting for celebrities unknown to anyone else on earth but them.

If you didn't know they were here for autographs you would pick them for mourners, so downcast and morbid is their aura – like people who once witnessed an accident on this very corner and come together every week to commemorate it.

I hung around for too long observing them recently, and ended up having to sign a few sheets of lined notepaper myself. Afterwards, it occurred to me that they might have thought I had gone there expressly to be autograph-hunted by them. How mortifying! Here was me thinking they were sad, and there were they thinking I was even sadder.

I can't go back there now, for fear of being pitied. But they were only doing their job, bringing things down to manageable proportions by the magic of naming and numbering. Shrink a plane, shrink a person – isn't that what it's about? So maybe the Greeks were right after all – it is a sort of sabotage.