Home » Correspondence » Recent Articles:

the fossilised eye of a fish

In response to Hazel’s beautiful to do lists.

Lists are everywhere. I have found myself increasingly fascinated by the list, partly because of Mary’s rather peculiar inclusions on her lists (hence the title of this post) and because in order to keep myself on the straight and narrow in my brave new world of PhD-dom, I am constantly writing them. Now I see lists everywhere, it is a form that is universally used. There are different kinds of lists, each with its own narrative quality; the mundane and everyday – shopping list, packing list, ‘to do’ list; the exclusive/inclusive – A-list, guestlist, blacklist, hitlist; the structuring and creating of order – playlist, tracklist; the competitive – longlist, shortlist. And Hazel’s ‘to do’ lists just show that even the apparently ordinary can be precious. There is the roll call, from the school register to the list of names on a cenotaph. How can such a raw and bald form of words have such poignancy?

At the core of every museum in the world is a ‘superlist’ – the accessions register. Kept under lock and key down in the depths of the basement, it is the heart of the institution, holding within itself the museum’s past, present and future, not just in the items it describes, but in the descriptive language used for each new acquisition; in the changing conventions of date, name, title (who uses ‘Esq’ any more); in the handwriting, from the inked copperplate of the earliest pages to the more idiosyncratic black biro entries of more recent times. And it is never complete. More on this shortly.

People understand the concept of a list, it is deceptively transparent, even objective; the reduction of thought/information/knowledge to its barest bones. Guidelines for writing for the web often advocate the use of bullet points rather than paragraphs – easier to read and a more efficient way of transmitting information quickly. A comment from Tom; lists are a product of fear – fear of loss, fear of forgetting, fear of distraction and disorder, fear of incompletion. To list is to control the material you are listing, to set parameters around it and to put it in order. It is a very explicit statement of control, there’s nowhere to hide in a list. Another comment from Tom; this is why politicians don’t like them. It’s much easier to obfuscate and hide woolly language and empty promises in a conversational format of words. Back to the writing for the web guidelines.

And yet. If a list is made of explicitly constituent parts, there is a clear path to dismantling it. It’s like lego, just take it all apart and rebuild it into something else. And when you do that, your list says something rather different, which suggests it’s not such a transparent format after all. There is fun and subversion to be had from taking a list apart and rebuilding it differently – Tom Lehrer reworked the order of the Periodic Table to form his brilliant song The Elements, set to Gilbert and Sullivan. My son’s Year 5 primary school teacher used to mix up the alphabetical order of the class register from time to time, as he had noticed that the children often answered before their names had actually been called and he wanted to wake them up a bit. Disrupting a list is provocative. This relates to a thought I keep coming back to about value and meaning in the collection and my current pre-occupation with inscribed objects. What if I were to re-catalogue the collection according to all the names that have been written on it?  What kind of a collection would it be then? More like the cenotaph perhaps. The list could be read as the ingredients (ooh, there we go, that’s another one – the instructive list), setting up the reader to imagine the story in the spaces between the entries.

This came up in conversation with my Mum yesterday. She writes, but was rather sceptical of my new-found fascination. And yet, soon found herself telling me about the day she sat in a cafe and decided to write 500 words about the menu, without actually mentioning anything on the menu. She wrote the story of the list, hidden in between the sequenced elements, flipping the whole thing round so the story emerged as the list disappeared.

So, although the concept of the list suggests containment, control and completion, it actually has infinite possibility. I discovered the other day that there is a book by Umberto Eco, called The Infinity of Lists (haven’t got hold of it yet, but it’s on my Christmas list). Found myself thinking of the list more as a runaway train, accelerating and decelerating under its own momentum until it finally runs out of steam. The empty pages of the accessions register will go on forever, as long as the museum lives. There is something of this quality in Mary’s collection and the lists that go with it; a sense of uncontrolled proliferation. This I think has something to do with the sheer size of it – in marked contrast to the smallness of the individual things themselves; the simple heartbeat of repetition – page after page of ‘key, 19th century’, ‘key, 19th century’; and the unexpected juxtaposition of the supposedly ordinary and the bizarre – ‘the fossilised eye of a fish’.


Snippet from letters (No.3)

June 6, 2010 Correspondence, The Letters Comments Off on Snippet from letters (No.3)

Wills cigarette card 1934

Letter from Mr Batho to Mrs Greg. Dated 3rd September 1935.

Mr Batho and his wife went to visit Mary at Westmill, and it seems the driver got rather confused and they spent a while lost, Mr Batho shows how kind and easy going he was by his response to this event:-

…Believe me we did not feel it a waste of time through the driver making the mistakes he did. My experience is that mistakes of this kind take you into lanes which you would never of seen. It was most interesting on both outward and inward journey…

I have felt a bit like that with this project..we have gone down lanes we might never of seen..and the journey is most enjoyable.


Snippets From Mary’s letters (No.2)

Badge and packaging from 1937 Coronation

Object from 1937 "Litbadge"

Reading through a few more of the letters from 1936 and 1937, and there is a strong emphasis on both Mary and Mr Batho’s health (Mr Batho sadly died in 1937). Mary was in her eighties.

November 23rd 1936 to Mr Batho, giving him advice on his sick wife…

How I wish all invalids could throw off all doctors and try the simplest way of eating!! You will perhaps have heard of the wonderful new discovery by an American doctor Hay by name – he says we eat wrong mixtures and though we may still eat the same food to a certain extent – we must not mix them – The results are wonderful he explains all in a small book called BUILDING BETTER BODIES price 5/- ……………..you would be surprised and pleased if you saw the difference it has made here where I and Miss James are trying it we are both years younger!

It can’t have done her any harm…she lived until 1949.

Another letter to Mr Batho from Mary Greg written on June 14th 1937, also shows her approach to doctors (again talking about Mr Batho’s wifes illness)

But I hope that the new doctor may find out how to help her – medicines so often do harm -unless the wonderful wise ones given by the homeopath…………………………..they have saved my life many times and kept me jogging along all these 87 years.