Planespotters, Greeks and the art of compiling meaningless lists

I'm too proud to make a list. Too proud even to make a shopping list. Lists are for ninnies
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The Independent Online

It had been my intention to write about Planespotting this week, ITV's nicely pitched drama about that group of hapless British planespotters arrested by the Greek authorities and charged with espionage. But my attention has been hijacked by the publication of this newspaper's Literary Canon for School-Leavers. Lists, you see. Some people makes lists of planes, others make lists of books. I myself have never made lists of anything. It's a principle thing. I am too proud to make a list. Too proud even to make a shopping list. Lists are for ninnies.

It had been my intention to write about Planespotting this week, ITV's nicely pitched drama about that group of hapless British planespotters arrested by the Greek authorities and charged with espionage. But my attention has been hijacked by the publication of this newspaper's Literary Canon for School-Leavers. Lists, you see. Some people makes lists of planes, others make lists of books. I myself have never made lists of anything. It's a principle thing. I am too proud to make a list. Too proud even to make a shopping list. Lists are for ninnies.

Why, in that case, I am so fascinated by other people's lists that I have to get a look at them, even going so far as to steal them from their owners' shopping baskets, I can't explain. Perhaps it is in order to be agitated. For no sooner do I read another person's list than I immediately want to quarrel with it. Why sugar? What do you want sugar for? And who needs crisps? Crisps kill. Ditto The Independent's list of books for school-leavers. Toni Morrison! Are you mad? How can you leave out all the Bröntes and George Eliot and put in Toni Morrison? And as for Harper Lee, what's she doing there? Don't tell me racism. Racism cannot determine the literature we want school-leavers to have read.

That's the trouble with taking issue with a list: before you know it you're sucked into making an alternative list of your own. Alan Paton, for example. How can you have Alan Paton when you've excluded Thomas Hardy? And if you're going to have Thomas Hardy then you've got to have DH Lawrence. In fact even without Thomas Hardy you've got to have DH Lawrence ...

Lists. Though I've said I am against lists, I don't like books and plays that make fun of people who make lists. I could write you a list of books and plays I don't like because they make fun of people who make lists.

One of the reasons for my enjoying Planespotting so much was the breadth of its sympathy for list-makers. Not once did it try to position the writing down of aircraft numbers within the wider symptomatology of obsessional neurosis. That planespotting is a species of retardation akin to keeping a record of expenses in the back of your diary, knowing the names of bands, reading the books Oprah tells you to, or collecting newts, it simply took for granted and moved on. One of the purposes of literature (from which I exclude the execrable Haruki Murakami - for God's sake, why make room for Haruki Murakami when there's no Jonathan Swift or Dr Johnson, and when, if we must have a Japanese writer, there is the infinitely more significant Yukio Mishima, who shouldn't be on the list either!) - one of the purposes of literature, I was saying, is to transport us from mere mockery or condemnation of the apparently ludicrous to acquaintance with the landscape of their souls as their souls appear to them, and Planespotting did a good job of rendering the joyousness of standing around the bleak and oily perimeters of airfields for people who could think of nothing they would rather do. Never mind how we view the activity.

As for what happened to the poor blighters, getting arrested and accused of spying, I can't pretend I didn't find myself feeling a touch Podsnappian about it all. Here we are, consumed with self-loathing because our government proposes confining to their comfortable quarters foreign nationals found with signed photographs of Osama Bin Laden in their wallets and explosives in their shoes, and there were the Greeks throwing our people into medieval oubliettes merely for jotting down numbers in a notebook. What was all that about European justice again?

That the Greeks (and why not The Oresteia instead of Chekhov?) were philosophically incapable of understanding the concept of planespotting also fuelled my patriotism. How wonderful that no one who isn't English can see the point of being pointless. I will not credit planespotting and activities of comparable inutility with making us a great nation, but without doubt our capacity for harmless, unassociated amusement, for purposeless endeavour, for self-absorption to no ideological end whatsoever, has contributed to the success of our democracy.

What's the betting that the code-breakers of Bletchley Park were doers of puzzles and solvers of crosswords before the war broke out? How many of our pilots stood in fields taking down the numbers of planes long before they flew them? In the course of the dramatised version of their trial, one of the planespotters described his hobby as the tribute ineffective men pay to action. Didn't warm the uncomprehending Greeks through much, but it was from the heart.

To my mind, though, it sold short the heroism of the inactive man. A heroism which I consider to be of an essentially English cast, of a kind with our genius for comedy and self-effacement, for pragmatism as against abstraction, for muddling along rather than questioning the whys and whens of things. That these qualities have issued in the unique experiential robustness of our literature is a truism apparent to everybody except those schooled in the etiolations of French theory, or dazzled by the overwrought gorgeousness of American phrase-making. We don't do theory, that's our glory. And we don't do gorgeous. We don't do wonder either, if the childrens' writers would only leave us alone. We plane spot. We mess about. We do life the honour of wasting it.

Plus we're funny. Plus we aren't self-righteous. So why effing Scott Fitzgerald and Virginia Woolf, and why writers who raise our social awareness, when social awareness belongs to social awareness studies and not literature, I have no idea.

But I'm damned if I'm going to be seduced into compiling a list of writers kids "should" read.

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