Thursday 22 February 2018

Lists, lists and more lists, by Dan Metcalf

I live for lists. As a former librarian, nothing is so tempting to me as a list – a neat, ordered, chronicle of intentions or accomplishments. It seems to me that as bookish people, we are predisposed to these things – as lovers of literature we long to see things recorded properly and succinctly. I was reminded of this as I spoke to a 8 year old neighbour this morning, who proudly presented me with a list of the books she had read over the half term holiday. Neatly titled, listed and folded up, placed in her top pocket ready to show her teacher, were a list of 5 Roald Dahl books. I congratulated her and was immensely proud myself, not just of her reading ability and love of books, but of her compulsion to list it all down.

My wife, an academic in the field of Children’s Literature, has books of lists. Alphabetical, written in numerous biro colours, she has kept it since the days of our ‘A’ levels. My dad, recently retired and a convert to reading, keeps a list of books although largely so he can remember which ones he has read. He even notes down the plot and gives a brief half-page review. Listing, it seems is in the family.

Many may remember Nick Hornby’s tribute to lists, High Fidelity, and for a brief time among my classmates we emulated the protagonist in making our own Top Five lists, although that was mostly of our favourite films and alcopops. The notion of noting down our favourite movies, songs, albums, bands, or cartoon character crushes (Jessica Rabbit wins every time, obvs) is now laughable as my tastes have changed so much. I recently found lists of the above from my early twenties and they are so cringe-worthy and banal that I cannot begin to reproduce them here. So I find the idea of popular media covering such lists insane. The TV schedules have them as their mainstay; remember the BBC’sBig Read? A summer long season that tried to compile the nations’ top 100 books? (An easily skewed online poll voted Lord of the Rings in at Number One, if you’re interested) Channel 5 seem to have one a week, which surely has culminated with Britain's Favourite Biscuit.(Spoilers: Here's the result) And Desert Island Discs, Radio 4’s 75 year old programme about kidnapping the great and the good and leaving them to die on a rock, asks notable persons to list their favourite songs; I pity the person who records their Desert Island discs in their twenties and then has to endure ribbing for the rest of their life because they chose ‘Touch My Bum’ by the Cheeky Girls “for a laugh”.

In fact, I always thought the format had the lists the wrong way around. Guests (or victims, if we’re taking the whole castaway thing seriously) are asked to tell the presenter (chief tormentor) their seven songs they would like to be washed up with (presumably they dropped their iPhone in the water with their 10000+ songs on it and the island handily has a turntable and electricity supply but there’s me picking hairs again). They also get to pick a luxury item (mine's a fully crewed yacht) and a book.

One book.

You get the bible and the complete works of Shakespeare for free (which will delight all non-Christians appearing on the programme) but get to choose one book. ONE! How in blue blazes am I supposed to pick just one book to see out my days? I’d happily swap my seven discs for books and get to choose just one song (That Golden Rule by Biffy Clyro, of course).

One list that has grabbed my attention since I was in short trousers though (I mean since I was a kid, not since last summer and the unfortunate choice of leg wear at the beach), was when I watched the 1960 film adaptation of HG Wells’ The Time Machine. It departs from the book slightly in that the plot seems overly concerned with the Earth being driven back to the stone age by a nuclear war, but as that seemed a very real possibility then I’ll let them off (and yes, it seems to be a very real possibility right now, but let’s leave politics out of this for a moment)

At the end, the Time Traveller absconds himself to his laboratory as whisks himself away in the machine once again, seemingly to never return. His sceptical friend Filby and housekeeper enter and see the space that the machine once held surrounded by debris and the Housekeeper notices nothing is missing except for three books that she could not identify. Filby supposes that he took them with him into the future, and proposes the question; if you were heading into a new world and time, what are the three books you’d take with you?

That question has played on my mind for 20+ years. Should I take something practical and informative like Nigella’s How To Be A Domestic Goddess? (the burnt butter cupcakes are to die for) Or a DIY Manual? Maybe, if the earth has succumbed to a nuclear war, a foraging book to help me collect food.

Nah. I’ll settle for some good reading material. I’ll probably be clubbed to death by Morlocks anyway so may as well enjoy myself. Here’s mine:

1 – An Omnibus of the Paddington Stories by Michael Bond – If I’m living in a post-apocalyptic landscape, I’d like some escapism and delving into the world of Number 32 Windsor Gardens is my ‘safe place’. The only thing you have to worry about there is Mrs Bird’s temper or running out of marmalade.

2 – An Omnibus of the Mortal Engines Quadrilogy by Philip Reeve – Okay, I’m probably cheating here by choosing an omnibus, but it’s my game so shut up. I love the world Reeve creates in these books but more than anything the characters. If I’m in a ruined Britain (again, you could argue we are already there but let’s leave politics at the door for the moment) I want to take Hester and Shrike with me. Also may be a handy manual in case the human race do accept Municipal Darwinism as their new way of life and begin to mobilise their cities, so, y’know it’s kinda practical as well.

3 – The Complete Y-The Last Man by Brian K Vaughan and Pia Guerra – This graphic novel showed me what real storytelling is; epic, brutal and compelling. If you don’t know it, a mystery illness kills off every male on Earth in the first few pages, all except one goofy responsibility-shy slacker called Yorick and his pet monkey (okay, sounds stupid now I write it down but trust me). It has everything you want from a major summer blockbuster movie – Amazon Warrior Women, secret spies and societies, danger, terrorists and monkeys. Did I mention monkeys?

Okay, I’ve shown you mine, now you show me yours. Catch me in the comments and on Twitter (@metcalfwriter)

Dan Metcalf writes Children’s books and can be found at Dino Wars, his new series about genetically engineered talking dinosaurs and a race against time to save the world, launches on 28th April from Maverick Books.


Susan Price said...

"You and me, little buddy. Adrift in an ocean of estrogen."

Anne Booth said...

I'd definitely love to take the Paddington omnibus, and I must read 'The Mortal Engines' - I have read and loved other books by Philip Reeves and I met him recently and thought he was lovely.

Penny Dolan said...

That's a "Hmmm" from here too.

List-making makes the list-maker feel powerful and in control (unless its a To-Do list, and even that feels as if one might be taking control.) An interesting post, Dan.

By the way, I have plans for a Mortal Engines/Traction Cities binge read before next December, when the Peter Jackson film arrives.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I’d take books by authors I’ve read over and over, such as Terry Pratchett. An omnibus, yes, but which? City Watch? Death? The witches? Maybe all three and there would be my three books. And I’d sneak in an extra, Lord Of The Rings/Hobbit omnibus, because, a. It’s thick! Plenty to read, b. I’ve read and reread that book, so know I can, and I’d need The Hobbit in the omnibus to remind me of how it started.

In my first year of teaching, I had a Year 9 student, a girl, who kept a list of her reading for the year. When I asked her about a book she had read, she pulled out the exercise book in which she kept the list and looked it up. She had read 85 books already that year and it was only halfway through the year... I wish I’d known her later, in my teacher librarian years, when I could have invited he4 to my book club!

Steve Gladwin said...

Just been reading a great Paddington omnibus here Dan so can completely agree with you Dan. I'd certainly go for Terry Pratchett too with Lords and Ladies and Monstrous regiment up there but so many others. I'd also have to have David Almond's Kit's Wilderness. But as ever so, so much I haven't read.

Andrew Preston said...

I just find that a list is a basic necessity for everyday shopping. Otherwise, I'd be so engrossed with the centre aisles of Lidl and Aldi, that I'd completely forget why I went in there in the first place.