“The Altamonts’ cellar, clean, tidy, and neat: from floor to ceiling, shelving and pigeonholes labelled in large, legible letters…”This satisfying, seductive list in George Perec’s novel Life: A User’s Manual goes on so long, it turns the page. Of all the lists in novels (often seen in classics where the upper classes might pack for a trip to Europe, or buy linens, glassware, and local delicacies to have shipped back home, or live in houses large enough for household staff to be replenishing a stock of things like candles and handkerchiefs), this, to my mind, is the quintessential list. Every Christmastime, it floats at the back of my mind, as I check I have in what I need for a few days of feasting, buying what I ordinarily wouldn’t, like brandy snaps or rum flavoured cream, things that are a little old-fashioned and fussy. A very partial snippet from the Altamont’s stock:“First, basic ingredients: wheat flour, semolina, corn flour, potato starch, tapioca, oat flakes, sugar lumps, granulated sugar, castor sugar…”.And then it’s on to tinned fish (“tuna chunks, sardines in oil, rolled anchovies…”), tinned vegetables (“garden peas, asparagus tips, button mushrooms…”), sachets of dried vegetables, rice and pasta products, and finally, once the excitement has built item by item, here comes the rich stuff, the likes of preserved meats and tinned fruit (“apricot halves, pears in syrup, cherries, peaches, plums, packs of figs, boxes of dates, dried bananas, prunes…”).
I so savoured this description of excess that it has stuck in my mind years after reading the book; each morsel, one after the other, chewed over. The combination of monotony and excess enduces a trance. It’s not, particularly that I want all of these things for myself. Many of them I definitely do not - no “copped liver, liver pate, boned meat in aspic, ox muzzle…” for me, thank you.But the idea of such plenty is exciting in the way that the circus is exciting; the mind towering with foodstuffs is a little magical, opening eyes as big as saucers. That’s why, even when not set at Christmastime, long lists like these feel inherently festive. The mind feasts on them. The Altamont’s Cellar might as well be a land in Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree, so fantastical and foreign is the concept of having a pantry stocked like that. In the Blyton books there is also excess; the Land of Take What You Please, and extraordinary, tempting if slightly frightening things like Pop Biscuits and Toffee Shocks.If I pause for a moment to consider that there’s something ethically troubling nagging at the back of my mind - gluttony, envy, the glorification of it all - the intoxication acts as a numbing anaesthetic. Perec’s depiction of this cellar is a more adult version of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which ramps up the thrill with each new food the caterpillar consumes. Here, he is eating his way through the Fortnum and Mason food hall, having already ransacked Harrods.
In his book Essayism, Brian Dillon says “I love the lists in the work of Georges Perec: they are many and various and always poised, it seems, between pure pleasure in the descriptive act of noting in series, and a darker sense that the list will never be done with, and may well at any rate lead us astray.” I think of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, and the hysterical edge that’s present from the very beginning in the display of spectacular confectionery.Dillon asks “Is there such a thing as a happy list in literature? The blithe verbal sum of possessions, achievements or experiences? Isn’t the very act of setting such things down evidence of some vexation, a clue that something is missing? The collector’s catalogue, the merchant’s tally, the seducer’s black book: they are all examples of compensating control.”I look at my Christmas lists. In to-do lists, there is both the anticipation of happy, celebratory, times in the near future, and a sense of tiredness at getting to that point. It is a burden and a promise wrapped in one. In lists of gifts for others, generally pleasing as I imagine recipients enjoying the things I’ve picked out for them, lurks the small worry that it’s not enough or not quite right. And I feel generally relaxed. I don’t have a massive meal to cook or kids to chase down the Christmas must-have toy for. Lists are an attempt at nudging things into place, doing small things bit by bit to shape Christmas day. They are an exercise in hope.
But another list that sticks in my mind is from Perec’s fellow Frenchman Jacques Prevert. This one, however, is about hunger. In his poem La Grass Matinee, “three days / three nights / without eating / and behind these windows / these pasties, these bottles, these conserves / dead fish protected by boxes / boxes protected by windows / windows protected by cops / cops protected by fear / what barricades for six unhappy sardines…” Here the list is long, because the narrator cannot have these things. The sights become terrible to him.
As I look at what’s left on my shopping list, and the hours tick down to Christmas, so much of it is fancy and frivolous. It’s so easy to become seduced by the idea of buying more and more at this time of year. I look at Glasgow North West Foodbank. They, too, have a list.“Tinned or boxed potatoes, diluting juice, rice pudding/custard, tinned fruit, tinned green veg (not baked beans), sugar, shower gel & shampoo, laundry powder, deodorant, instant coffee, shaving foam & razors, cooking oil.”If you can, consider popping out for a few last things.