'Not to tell the same story over and over to the same people ...
Not to be over severe with young people ...
and, very wisely,
Not to set up for observing all these rules, for fear I should observe none.'
This last is wise advice if you're considering listing your new year's resolutions. Looking back at my list of resolutions for 2013, I am ashamed to see that I achieved barely half of what I pledged to myself. Worse, perhaps, in the grand scheme of things, my resolutions were more a to do list (e.g.'mend bike') than any requiring deprivation, daring adventure or great moral courage. I know myself well enough not to be overly ambitious. So then, why did I write this list? To give my conscience an objective prick? (Maybe that's what Hamlet's ghost was on about? "List, list, O list ...") To see my image reflected back to me off the page? To strengthen my resolve? To 'cast a spell' over myself through committing these plans to paper? Or, more likely, to procrastinate: rather than mend my bike, why not write a list including that intention, and then gain a sense of achievement without having to do anything.
But lists are good for writers - and a peculiar attraction. Consider the use of lists made by another Irish writer, Joseph O'Connor, in 'Star of the Sea' (2002). It's a novel which plays in many other ways with the English language, in order to undo its insidious power over the Irish. When David Merridith returns to Connemara, it's not just his accent which is transformed by his Winchester schooling:
'The tenants found it difficult to attune to his changing accent; the exotic music of Connemara Gaelic spoken in the tones of the English public school...
'Arland' he'd say, when actually he meant Ireland (Some of the people thought he was saying Ourland, and thereby making some political point)'
'the English possessed as many words for stealing as the Irish had for seaweed or guilt...
Breeds of embezzlement came to him first as beautiful words. Beak-hunting; bit-faking; blagging; broading; bug-hunting; buttoning; buzzing, capering; playing the crooked cross; dipping; dragging; fawney-dropping; fine-wiring; flimping; flying the blue pigeon; gammoning; grifting; half-inching; hoisting; doing the kinchen-lay; legging; lifting; macing; minning; nizzling; mug-hunting; nailing; outsidering; palming; prigging; rollering; screwing; sharping; shuffling; smatter-hauling; sniding; toolering; vamping; yack-snatching and doing the ream flash pull. Stealing in London sounded like dancing, and Mulvey danced his way through the town like a duke.'
I like the dark energy of this list and its ranting, political flavour.
'List' has had - and still retains - some curiously overlapping meanings in English. OED lists many meanings for the verb and, amongst others, the following meanings for the substantive: list = a sense of hearing (from which 'listen'); = wisdom; = border; = a strip of cloth (and, later, paper); = boundary (I hadn't realised how Medieval jousting tournaments, known as 'the lists' were so called because they took place on ground marked out or fenced off by 'lists' or boundary fences); = pleasure, joy, delight (To be 'listless' is to be without 'list'/'lust' or will.) And I haven't even started on the verbal meanings. So when writing 'lists', or begins to keel over, maybe we all need to be list-ful - especially at this time of year.
(Jonathan Swift also, reputedly, coined the phrase: 'When no pun is meant, there's no punishment'. He was right.)
NWP outreach director