In my lunch hour today I went to the British Library and looked at an exhibition of tiny books. (These are not from there; the British Library frowns on people taking photographs in their galleries of precious books. These are the tiniest books that I have in the house.)
Charlotte Brontë was thirteen when she wrote this. Jane Eyre was several years in the future. Even if she could have foreseen the millions of cheap paperback copies of that, I don’t think she could have dreamt that after a couple of centuries the stories of Angria and Gondal and Gaaldine would have prompted scads of scholarship, books, fanfic, and a small moral panic. And going by this, I’m not sure she’d have cared.
There is plenty wrong with the world at the moment. (There always has been. I tend to find this comforting; you may not.) And much of it is the big stuff, the kind that needs big solutions. Bigger than me.
The actions that I can take are small. There is very little that I can control, and not much more that I can influence in any meaningful way. And yet I keep taking small actions. Not as many, or as often, as I’d like to. But some. Why?
I am one, but I am one of many.
I work for a trade union, so it’s perhaps easier for me to remember this than it is for some others. It does help, working with people who share many of my values and many of my ideals. We don’t always agree on the best way to achieve change, or even what a particular change should look like. It can be a slog: there’s an awful lot to do. But every so often we manage to change something for the better, something we wouldn’t have managed on our own.
My brother tells me that the reason he stopped flying was that I stopped flying. (And the reason that I stopped flying was that I read a news article – well over a decade ago now, since I haven’t flown since 2007 – about some bishop or other giving up flying.) We have more influence than we think we do. Not much more, perhaps. But some.
It can affect the big stuff.
In this category I’d place things like writing to my MP. If it’s just me writing to her, she probably isn’t going to act on it. If tens or hundreds of her constituents do, she’s more likely to. She might still not do it. But at least I’ve made it that little bit more difficult for her to tell herself she’s doing what her constituents want.
Maybe I’d put things like buying fair trade under this header, too. The 30p difference between the fair trade option and the not fair trade option doesn’t make much difference to me, and it probably doesn’t make much difference to the farmer either. But across millions of customers and thousands of farmers it adds up.
It made a difference to that starfish.
Have you heard that story? I came across it when I was just old enough to get the point and just young enough not to find it unbearably cheesy. Some small actions do make a big impact, depending on the perspective you’re looking from.
Picking up three pieces of litter doesn’t do much about the great Pacific garbage patch (which in any case is mostly made of fishing nets, not plastic straws, please stop banning plastic straws), but it can make a path look visibly more attractive; and if I’ve put one can in the bin then that’s one hazard taken out of the way of the local wildlife.
It made a difference to me.
In my office most of the doors are decorated with the sort of quotations that are usually described as ‘inspirational’. (I avoid the word ‘inspirational’ where possible, but it’s probably the appropriate one here.) One of them is from Joan Baez, one of the few artists I have gone out of my way to see live, and it says: Action is the antidote to despair. I mention this one – I remember this one, in contrast to all the other doors in the building – because in my experience it is true. I am very prone to despair. It seems to come along for the ride with depression, whether as cause or symptom I’m not sure. And yet doing something (a tiny something: taking the compost out, telling somebody they’ve dropped their ticket, passing on some unwanted plates to a neighbour who does want them) has a disproportionately cheering effect. Assuming I can get that far in the first place.
It helps me. Does it help anyone or anything else? If I’m honest, if I’m at the point where I’m worrying about that, I’m not actually in a place where I care.
I just do.
Do something (or don’t do something) for long enough, and it shades into sheer habit. My mother has been boycotting Nestlé since the early nineties; consequently, there’s a whole shelf of chocolate bars that I just don’t see. Does that make any difference to Nestlé’s bottom line? Well, no, because I was never their customer to start with. It’s just habit now. It doesn’t really make any difference to me, either. I’ll have a dark Chocolate Orange, if I can find one. (Do they even still make them?)
Because I am a person who does this.
This is where it can get deeply philosophical. How far is what I am determined by what I do?
I don’t always. Up until yesterday, I hadn’t written to my MP about anything for months. For all I know she was wondering if I’ve died or moved away. Now she knows I haven’t. And that I feel strongly enough about the Elections Bill to tell her how strongly I feel about it.
Choosing hope, and choosing hope by taking an action, over and over again, becomes at once a symbolic and a physical act of resistance. It becomes almost a praxis, an observance. For me, it’s an outworking of my religious faith, but I don’t think it has to be. Challenging my natural propensity for gloom changes the world – or, at least, the world I live in. And that’s the only world that I can do anything about.
I went to my local homes and gardens shop the other day, looking for a lint roller. The man on the till explained that they did not stock them, as the peel-off sticky bits can’t be recycled. He offered me a clothes brush instead. I said that so long as it would get cat hair off the sofa that was fine with me.
I publish my paperbacks through Lulu. It can be a massively frustrating process, but I have yet to hear of any other print-on-demand service being noticeably better. There are two ways to get your books out there. Or one and a half, really, I suppose. You can sell them through the Lulu bookstore. You can also choose ‘global distribution’, which makes it available through all the big retailers.
The snag – and this has become much more of a snag in the five years since I started doing this – is that the big retailers also wish to take their cut along the way. Which is fair enough. But printing costs have gone up, and so, I think, has the cut, and the gap is getting wider and wider.
Take The Real World. The minimum I can sell it for on Lulu is £6.90. If, however, I want to put it in for global distribution I have to whack the price all the way up to £13.72. Which is a silly price, so I put it as £13.99.
So I was in the slightly ridiculous situation of having to charge four pounds more than I considered reasonable for a paperback in order to sell the item on a platform that made me feel skeevy (because it was almost always Amazon) to make a few pennies on the sale.
And then nobody was buying them. Quite reasonably. I wouldn’t spend fourteen quid on a paperback. (OK, I do spend thirteen quid on the Girls Gone By reprints of the Marlows series: but have you seen how much they go for second-hand?)
One solution would have been to dump Lulu and go with KindleDirect Publishing. Or go with both. I couldn’t face wrangling a third platform, so ‘both’ was out. And going exclusively with Amazon would have made me feel very skeevy indeed, and probably also have lost me a few sales.
(I don’t avoid Amazon entirely, but if I can get a book somewhere else, I will. For variousreasons. And it does make a difference as to whether I get it in the first place. There are a couple of authors who’d be instabuy for me if only they weren’t Amazon exclusive. As it is, I only buy the books that really, really, really appeal to me.)
Anyway, I was fretting about this for months. Then Lulu emailed to say they were putting their prices up. And I realised: I could pull my books from everything except Lulu.
I know, I know. It doesn’t seem fair to react to ‘Lulu putting their prices up’ by ‘removing my books from everything except Lulu’. But see above. Lulu drive me up the wall, but they don’t make me feel skeevy. And actually, a company being honest about the true costs of something was surprisingly refreshing. Stuff does cost money, and if we’re not paying for it, chances are someone else is.
So. The best place to get paperback copies of my books is now Lulu. It’s worth waiting until they run a 10% or 15% sale, which they do quite frequently; this ought to go some way towards covering the cost of postage. (Alternatively, my mother has six copies of The Real World which I got sent to her address and then forgot to sell when I was there, and then forgot to take away with me. Sorry, Ma. Do you want to post them?)
The ebooks of the two Stancester novels are on Smashwords, from which you can download them in every format I’ve heard of and some I hadn’t. I have made my peace with their not being on Kindle: when these ones sell, it’s usually because someone’s enthused about them on Weird Anglican Twitter, and the denizens of WAT tend to be sufficiently net-savvy to track them down. A Spoke In The Wheel is still on Kindle. I have no idea why the others broke and this one didn’t, but for the moment I’m going to let well alone.
But what of my principled local homes and gardens shop? Well, I didn’t buy a lint roller. I didn’t buy a clothes brush, either, but only because I phoned home and discovered there was one on order. I did buy a garlic press, a potato brush, and an ash bucket in which to keep the dried cat food. The cat meanwhile, has decided that she prefers sitting on the windowsill, which is much easier to sweep.