Aramanth and reflections on society

Despite being a “children’s book” (just refer back to one of my many rants against anti-YA snobbery), The Wind Singer (by William Nicholson, part 1 of the Wind on Fire series) also paints a really interesting political picture when viewed with a bit more life experience and understanding.

The city of Aramanth is basically built upon the principles of strivers vs. skivers, as propagated by our very own government. Their daily creed is: “I vow to strive harder, to reach higher, and in every way to seek to make tomorrow better than today.”

The whole society rests on the myth of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, of hard work and fair chances for everyone, with plenty of testing for the wrong thing and a healthy dose of class segregation.

It’s eerily similar to the world outside my window, and as the book wonderfully demonstrates, is not a system which can work for any length of time. Even the people who believe in the punishing structure of their lives do not benefit from it – there is a horrifying lack of kindness in the city, with a tendency to tell tales on your neighbours that borders on Orwellian.

It also portrays quite nicely how difficult this kind of policy is to shift – the basic principles are not something you can clearly argue against, and the importance of order and this notion of deservedness is one which embeds very deeply within people’s minds.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a wind singer to save us. The discrimination isn’t quite as easy to spot – we don’t have colour-coded districts and uniforms, nor an explicit whole-family ratings system. But we do have very clear classifications of people – those who wear designer labels and those who do not, business suits, hair dye and style, accent and leisure activities, even food. Some people live in desirable (read: rich) neighbourhoods, and others are in rough parts of town, just as they do in this book.

(Image: Channel 4)

We’re not as far away from Nicholson’s imagined world as we could be, and that’s certainly scary. You can mask mistreatment of those less lucky in life with tabloid sound-bites and the impression of strong morals.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea that people must work hard to maintain a fair society – which is why certain political parties get away with it so easily – but implementing this ideal on very strict lines, from a perspective of power that has never known anything but privilege and prosperity, is intensely problematic.

It means people with less, get less. It means no help for anyone who needs it, just blame and division and guilt over being thought of as a burden. Everyone needs to be carried sometimes, in some way, and I want to live in a state that allows and even encourages that.

For some people, tomorrow will never be better than today. That’s not because they are weak, or stupid or lazy. It’s because they were born into a class system which pretends it doesn’t exist, and they ended up on the bottom tier. Or it’s because circumstance has so much more influence on our lives than positive thinking and hard graft can ever have. Sometimes it’s because success by one person’s standards is not one-size-fits-all, and a different version of “better” simply doesn’t count. And it’s definitely because we are a social species who evolved to help each other out – when we don’t, is it any wonder some of us don’t make it?

The whole idea of exams and status as the best way to separate the sheep from the goats (whoever said they needed separating anyway?) is also based on the notion that is it only things which can be measured in numbers and frequencies and pounds to the economy that have real value. I reject this completely. A society where people are kind, polite, supportive and free is so much better than one where the Government can quotes reams of statistics to prove their impact.

Both in the fictional Aramanth, and modern day Britain, I can see why a system that only focuses on achieving is in place. It’s easy. Testing and then dividing people up is a far clearer way of organising society. When everyone has an “equal chance”, you can move quite swiftly to “we’re all in this together” and many people will agree with you.

Viewing the world in black and white, deserving versus non-deserving, is simple to understand and simple to enact. It takes a wider worldview, one which accepts that society should be inclusive and not exclusive, to promote a truly fair blueprint for how we should live.

In The Wind Singer, the people of Aramanth grow this way after an evil named the Morah inhabits them. Out in real life we can’t point to some external force, there’s only us: people who do good things and bad things. What we choose to spend our energy doing, and what we choose to accept from our leaders, is what makes the difference.

Childhood heroes

I wanted to do a post about the characters that really inspired me when I was younger; the ones I wanted to be, the ones I thought of as my friends and the ones I looked up to.

Top of the list has got to be Lyra – my friend is reading The Amber Spyglass for the first time and I’m so jealous of him discovering that amazing new world that I don’t know what to do with myself. Lyra was, and still is, a fantastic character. She’s not that nice; she can be mean and ruthless, but she is also kind and selfless and brave beyond measure. I wanted to run around on rooftops and go to the North with her, and she so brilliantly encapsulates character progression as she comes to understand the terrible choices we can, and must, face.

Lyra is in good company on my list with other girls who don’t sit still; Anne (of Green Gables), Jo March, Lucy (why did no-one believe Lucy?) and Alice (proving curiosity trumps being sensible every time). And how could I forget Alanna, who made me want to be a knight and go out fighting sexism before I knew what that meant.

Ludo (of and the Starhorse fame) is also a firm favourite, again representing the underdog and showing that courage and kindness can take you very far in life, as in adventure. Kes from the Wind on Fire for saving her people and Mumpo for loyalty more valuable than brains. Demetria for giving up everything she ever knew to take a chance on a fairytale a stranger tells her, and Ender (‘s Game) who represents almost every good quality I look for in a human being, without being too perfect to be truly human.

John from You Don’t Know Me, for being as flawed as you can get whilst still envoking empathy and the pure hope that things get better. (I am) David for determination and a reminder that the world is still beautiful even when life is not.

I love Rand, but it was Egwene who made me cry when the series ended, who grew up too quickly because she had to, and it was Lan who showed me what responsibility meant.

Twig, who gets lost in order to find everything, but never forgets where home is.

Thinking up my favourite characters has been really fun, and its interesting to see that its not necessarily my favourite books which determines the best people, although I don’t think there’s any from a book I didn’t like. For some of my best-loved books, it’s just the story, or the underlying themes which I adore, rather than the characters.

Unfinished business

A cool infographic showing the most common unfinished books inspired me to write a similar list of books I’ve started but haven’t finished, and why.

A lot of classics and well-known books:

Dracula – Dull as ditchwater.
Catch-22 – Never got the appeal.
Dreamcatcher – Really, truly disgusting.
Game of Thrones book 4 – Just got bored of the series.
The Wasp Factory – Again, a well-loved book that I just found miserable and nasty. Read all but the very last chapter before I realised I was exhausted. Life’s too short for bad books.
Lolita – I think people just read this to say they have. Not very good.
Treasure Island – Maybe I read this all the way through when I was little, but can’t remember.

More recently:

Chavs – only started reading out of lack of better books. Not too bad.
Contagious – again, a book of convenience rather than choice.
The Better Angels of Our Nature – I’m definitely going to finish this. Some day.
Delusions of Gender – I’ll probably finish this, slowly. It’s non-fiction, what can I say?
Gaia – As much as I like the idea of this book, I’ve never finished it and probably never will.
Hegemony and Survival – Interesting, but put-down-able.

To be honest, I thought there would be a lot more. I don’t have a rule that ‘I never leave a book unfinished’ but I don’t like to do it either. It’s really obvious what kind of book makes me lose interest as well; non-fiction, bad classics, and only truly bad more modern novels. I have finished terrible books before, but the satisfaction of justifying your initial impressions doesn’t often stretch that far.

What’s on your list?