As I write

This is my 8th weekly ‘As I write’ column, and it’s the last in 2019. I’ve written about – family; rain (there’s a lot of rain in these posts); the importance of helping people; writers – Ronald Blythe; Thomas Hardy; and Edwin Morgan; and I have tried to fight fear with reasons to be hopeful.

In 2020, I aim to carry on with this column. Any suggestions for subjects to write about, feel free to send me a message.

A happy festive season to you all.

As I write, I am thinking about making things. I live in Dundee, a small city where making things was a big part of what made us. Ships which sailed around the world. Millions of miles of jute which were made into sails, catching warm winds off the Cape of Good Hope in Africa or icy blasts around the white coast of the Antarctic. Jute made in Dundee was also turned into long walls of sandbags, ugly cushions to protect soldiers in the trenches of the Somme, before whistles blew for the order to go over the top, and then there was no protection.

In Dundee, for decades, other things were made in great numbers. Computers, tyres, watches, cash registers, and lots and lots of jam. Some things went out of fashion – like jute; and other things were made instead. Like – polypropylene, a plastic version of jute. I remember using a fork- lift truck with a long, blunt spike to lift huge rolls of the stuff in a factory now closed.

All of these things we made we do not make now. There are a few places left which make things, but on a tiny scale compared to the past. These kinds of facts can be described, in economic terminology, as ‘the decline of manufacturing production’. It is one of those definite truths which doesn’t tell the whole story. It wasn’t just production which was lost, or the vital wages – the blood of any city’s nervous system; also lost was a way of life as each factory which made things closed.

There’s no value in being nostalgic about lost industry. There were terrible things about the past: the jute mills were noisy and dusty places which deafened many people and left many others wheezing from lung diseases. The billionaire owners of places like Timex were brutal barons, engaged in a permanent war with trade unions – over wages, hours, and the safety of men and women who made things.

If you visit Dundee’s main museum, you can see things made here across centuries. From ancient scraps of pottery and a huge canoe carved from a tree, to paintings of great ships, a very fancy cash register, early computers, and watches. Most of these things are kept in glass cases for their protection: you can see but not touch.

We can also ‘see’ our past, our past of making things, in old photographs, in history books and life stories, and sometimes in the recalled memories of people who made things. We can see the past in these ways but not really touch it. The experience may be recounted, perhaps forever, but it has gone. It is the ghost of Christmas Past; but – it may also be the ghost of Christmas Future.

Perhaps, the value of considering all that we have lost, all that once was, and particularly our ways of living, is that we can learn what we could do and what we could be in the future. For some humble writers like myself, this is important to imagine. We can at least try to write in a way which brings alive the idea – of making many things we want to make. Could we once again see Dundee making ships? Are there new things we could be making? What would our world look like if the people who make things ran the show?

Harvey Duke

There are more photographs of Dundee museum: here.

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