Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 9 December 2007

The perfect fork

My parents used to get annoyed with me as a child for leaving food on my plate. I was reminded – and not infrequently – of those starving children in Africa. It didn't stop me not liking Brussels sprouts though. Or cabbage. Or spinach.

I've just read through Doris Lessing's Nobel Prize acceptance speech in which she recalls her childhood in Africa and laments that children in Zimbabwe are starving for knowledge. I could understand hungering for food when I was a kid, not that I ever did, but hungering for knowledge? If I wanted to know something I just asked my dad.

There were books in the house where I grew up, dictionaries, encyclopaedias, self-help books, but no fiction apart from children's storybooks, mainly by Enid Blyton who probably deserves a whole blog to herself one day. It was not my parents' fault. My mother always told us how her sister was the dux of the school whereas she was the dunce; my father had been the school bully and fared no better. After though he set out to educate himself and bought books appropriate to his line of business; he got his City & Guilds and then looked for other things to learn. Books were tools as far as he was concerned, designed to do a job, like a fork, a means to an end; he couldn't see the point in reading things other people had just made up. I wasn't exactly forbidden to read fiction, you must understand, but I was never encouraged.

I've tried to put myself in the shoes (perhaps an inappropriate choice of metaphor there) of these Zimbabweans. It's hard. But I do get the desire to make the world a little better for our children. Before my daughter was born she already had 100 books ready and waiting for her, including all of the Enid Blyton retellings of the Brer Rabbit stories. I'm glad to report she has grown up into a voracious reader and I never tire buying her new books despite their almost prohibitive cost.

This is perhaps where technology can come to the rescue. If someone can invent a clockwork radio they can invent a clockwork e-book reader. I know there are organisations like Computer Aid International that find homes for all the perfectly good PCs we in the West dispose of because they're out of date. There is also something called the Simputer specifically designed for the third world.

A single PC can hold hundreds of books; with an internet connection that becomes thousands. We in the developed countries may be a bit sniffy about devices like Amazon's Kindle but I doubt the Africans would have the same attitude. I can't see them keeping it in the box in case it gets dirty. None of the above are perfect solutions but, as I've heard so often, we don't live in a perfect world as if that's reason enough not to try and improve things.

There is absolute perfection (e.g. a man who never sins) and relative perfection (e.g. a fork). A fork is perfect for the job for which it is intended. It's not very good for hammering in nails. I wonder how perfect Lessing's speech was. She tells a sad tale very well – she should be able to, they've just awarded her the ruddy Nobel Prize for Literature – but will it change anything? Will this blog? Maybe words don't quite have the power the Zimbabweans think they do.


Ms Baroque said...

Nice post Jim - & maybe they do, just a little. Though of course I love my books and all their lovely bindings, and the way they smell, and the paper they're printed on, and their lovely typography, I personally am a fan of the e-reader idea - I also think they could be great for people with poor eyesight etc, who can't always manage small print.

Conda Douglas said...

As an American, I believe that some words have tremendous power--not my words--but The Declaration of Independence words, the Bill of Rights words. Words that need to be not only remembered but also defended. However, some of this may be indoctrinated. I remember, vividly, how as a first grader, I first heard "Live Free or Die." Seemed a bit harsh.

Jim Murdoch said...

Zimbabwe also has a Constitution. It's a fairly lengthy document. The Bill of Rights contains pretty much what you would expect:

Article 12 Protection of right to life
Article 13 Protection of right to personal liberty
Article 14 Protection from slavery and forced labour
Article 15 Protection from inhuman treatment
Article 16 Protection from deprivation of property

There are some people who would say it's not worth the paper it's written on. It's just words. The big problem with words, even those bound up in legalese, is that they are open to interpretation. All you have to do is watch a show like Boston Legal which, although a satire, makes very pertinent points about how laws can be made to prove black is white if you attorney is good enough … or your president corrupt enough.

Conda Douglas said...

Corrupt presidents, corrupt politicians, corrupt and manipulative lawyers...sometimes I'm abashed. Especially these days. Doesn't seem to help, but I try to remember that mostly we muddle through--too depressing otherwise.

Dave King said...

Just before reading this post I was thinking of the Archbishop of York's gesture in cutting up his dog collar. I will not be the first to remark on how much more powerful was that symbol than any stream of words. The doing of the word hits home where the saying can be more easily brushed off. Perhaps some gismo such as you refer to would hit home in Africa, though. It would be new to them and seem different to their eyes than to our jaded ones. A lot of food for thought in your post. Thanks.
Dave King

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