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Reading again

I have an admission to make. I stopped reading. I blame amazon (though probably not for the reason you think!). I got one of their kindles a few years ago to take on holiday as my book requirements for two weeks away would use up all my baggage allowance in one go! It was great. I didn’t buy every book I wanted to read in digital form from then on, but a good proportion. Last year my kindle just stopped working. Nothing could revive it. Tim, being the good hacker he is even tried taking it apart and fiddling with it to rescue it. No luck. So I ordered a new one. The thing is, I don’t like it. It doesn’t feel right in my hand, it feels flimsy and lightweight and the interface is clunky. So … I just stopped reading. For anyone who knows me, you’ll know that’s really weird. I didn’t do it consciously, I just never seemed to feel like it. Perhaps I need to go back to proper paper books bought from real bookshops. In the meantime I’ve started again, reading a couple of new books and picking up some old ones from my bookcase to look through again.

I re-read most of Sew your own by John-Paul Flintoff on monday. It’s a book I picked up after hearing the man himself talk at Greenbelt. I went along because I was interested in sewing but there was so much more to it. The book covers a lot of ground, it’s not just about sewing, it’s also about sustainability, some really interesting stuff on spirituality and religion and the difference you can make by doing small things well. Here are a couple of quotes. The first is really a quote from John Ruskin about the things being just a cog in a machine does to people’s humanity.

The Victorian essayist John Ruskin responded to Smith’s division of labour thus: “We have much studied and much perfected… the division of labour,” he wrote. “Only we give it a false name. It is not, truly speaking, the labour that is divided but the men – divided into mere segments of men, broken into small fragments and crumbs of life – so that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin or the head of a nail.” It is a good and desirable thing, Ruskin conceded, to make many pins in a day. “But if we could only see with what crystal sand their points were polished – sand of human soul, much to be magnified before it can be discerned for what it is – we should think there might be some loss in it also.” 

Gandhi recognised something like this effect in India many decades ago. Under British rule, India had become dependent on British mills to spin and weave its own cotton. As leader of the independence movement, Gandhi gave up wearing Western-style clothing and adopted the practice of weaving his own clothes from thread he’d spun himself. He encouraged others to do the same. Initially, he was disregarded or laughed at, and you can imagine why: having invented a spinning wheel all of his own, he routinely took it with him to political meetings. But Gandhi rightly predicted that if Indians made their own clothes, it would deal a devastating blow to the British establishment in India. Within a few years, the cotton mills in Lancashire – where many of my Flintoff forebears spun Indian cotton for export back to India – had closed. And when India achieved independence, Gandhi’s insight was acknowledged by the addition of the spinning wheel into the national flag. Gandhi’s idea was revolutionary because it showed that a whole country’s destiny can be determined by individuals doing something very small indeed – something to bear in mind next time somebody tells you “there’s no point” doing something small when the problems facing us are so big.

That reminded me that, first of all, it’s a long time since I’ve used my sewing machine properly. A few years ago I had visions of creating my own wardrobe out of my own designs (perhaps even using fabric I’d had printed with my own artwork) and I never really got round to doing that. But it also reminded me that although I’m the kind of person who’s interested in ideas about how we make the world we’re in a just and fair one, I rarely take any action to ensure that. I think that needs to change. I’m not sure what I can do, but I can write about what I’m thinking. So I’ll do that.

A friend recently introduced me to the concept of biopower. I’m not entirely sure I’ve got it right so please correct me if I’m wrong. It’s an idea first mooted by the philosopher Foucault, and it’s about the biological power of human beings located in their physical stuff. It’s the power on which nation states are built and it fuels capitalism. As an idea it makes sense of the world, when you think of all the people on mass, living, working, eating, reproducing and dying, you can kind of picture that as a huge resource of energy which can be used, measured, manipulated or exploited, just as any other type of fuel. As a human being, it makes me very nervous.

Hearing about biopower reminded me very much of a bit from a Terry Pratchett book. He’s a fantasy author who died recently. I’ve always loved his made-up world because it reveals so much about our own. And, because it’s very funny. In this part of the story, a priest and a witch (Granny Weatherwax) are having a conversation. Granny is trying to make sense of the religion the holy man is claiming. He starts with talking about the nature of sin, but she is way ahead of him on that:

“There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment on the nature of sin, for example.”
“And what do they think? Against it, are they?”
“It is not as simple as that. It’s not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray.”
There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”
“It’s a lot more complicated than that–“
“No it ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”
“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes-“
“But they Starts with thinking about people as things…”

So many problems begin with thinking about people as things. Things to be bought and sold, things to be held captive for their value, things to be disposed of when they become unproductive. If you think of people as things, it’s easy to think some people are worth more and some people are worthless. It’s painful when you see it up close, but when you zoom out and look at things at a global or national level then it gets harder to see people as people. Those tiny moving dots in the city streets, seen from above, they become assets to be moved round, fuel for the system. The pain isn’t obvious, except to those who are living it. And if you’re one whose soul is polishing the wealth of the nations then you may not notice the slow erosion of it at all.

Reading. Dangerous thing.

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