Behind everything we buy and see there’s an origin story.
And even for some of the most banal objects, these stories are surprisingly interesting — because behind everything is often decades if not centuries of human endeavour. Weird human stories. Strange collective cultural beliefs that gave the thing the value it has.
Take the fish in your supermarket for instance.
When you look at the fish, you most likely see dinner. What’s the texture going to be like, the consistency? Is the colour ok? If I quietly poke the side of it to test it, is someone in the store going to notice?
What you might not immediately think of, thanks to the beautifully sanitised and banal environment that fish is sitting in, is the sheer adventure it’s been on.
Where’s it come from that day? If you consider that half the world’s fish is exported from a few key countries — China, Peru, Japan, US, Norway, Iceland, Chile, Indonesia, Russia, India, Thailand — then it could have been from miles away. Who’s caught this fish and held it in their hand? Is some Norwegian fisherman relying on this for his livelihood, and what’s he been up to? Is he proud or disappointed by the catch he got that day? How did it get here? Did it come on one of those huge container ships? How much did the supermarkets pay for it vs what I’m paying now?
The origins of objects are almost as fascinating as those of people. And what’s more, they bind historical timespans, geographies, cultures and completely different kinds of people in their journey. A bought fish — what it looks like, how it feels, what its significance is, how it got here — can be the same kind of fish across the world but seen and experienced in completely different contexts.
What I aim to capture here is a collection of those stories.
How objects come to us. How even simple things in our lives have rich, beautiful backgrounds. And how they have touched people’s lives and created obsessions throughout the world and through history.
Some of them, I’ll write myself. Some I’ll gather from others.
What I hope to inspire in others is a greater sense of beauty and appreciation in the mundane. Of making do with what you have, and the incredible things that have come before you. Of the ability to make something sustainable of a passion, no matter how odd. And maybe even giving a flavour of some incredible periods in history from a very different perspective.
Within this context, I promise you a few things:
- Order — I want this to be a safe place on the internet, and focused on one kind of thing. You can keep coming back here any time and the whole system won’t have changed. You won’t see clickbait-y titles or ever be left wondering what you’re supposed to read next. Article entries are going to be literally grouped by object — “Fish”, “Lemons”, “Oranges”, “Nutmeg”, etc — and I’ll try my best to keep the arrangement of these easy to follow and navigate.
- Consistency — The internet tends to be driven by agile kinds of methodologies, and testing things out to see what sticks. That’s why you tend to find all kinds of terrible rubbish in your inbox at any one time, with people just bombarding you with random stuff. I’m doing this because I believe these kinds of stories need to be collected, and that if I don’t do it somebody else will. It’s not driven by profit, and so I’m not desperately going to be chasing your buck or attention. Instead you’ll find consistent, hopefully consistently interesting stories and resources that play to this common theme of origin stories; and can serve as useful pieces whether you’re arriving at them now or in 20 years time. My philosophy is like that of Brady Haran & CGP Grey of Hello Internet — “Timely, but timeless.” From this, you’ll hopefully find a kind of calming consistency. Which brings me on to…
- Calm — There simply is too much stuff out there. I know how bombarded with information you are. Please feel safe here. One of the purposes of writing about objects is that they are timeless and only slowly change. Therefore the kind of knowledge you get from these articles is not of the mentally-aggravating, fast news kind, but of the calm, considered, shaped-by-thousands-of-years-of-history kind. People are the same whatever age they’re in, and you’ll still learn loads. You should come here for a break from the everyday norm. For those moments when you’re not quite ready for meditation or something like that, but you just need to peace out from random stresses and attacks on your attention from all sides by pointless, worthless inanity.
It’s for this reason that I’ve given this collection its name, “The Making of Things”. In Republican Rome, 2000 years ago, the poet Lucretius wrote a book called De Rerum Natura, “The Nature of Things”, which set out the principles of what we now know as Epicureanism. In those days, Epicureanism (from the teachings of Greek philosopher Epicurus) was not like we know it — the art of sensory indulgence, the appreciation of food — but was instead simply a philosophy of stepping back from the hustle and bustle of life and appreciating what you have, rather than striving for more or stressing yourself out with fears and superstitions.
These were days, bear in mind, where people in Rome considered themselves incredibly cosmopolitan, with a variety of obsessions, status symbols and a fully functioning market economy. In those days, the idea of throwing away the gods and trying to understand the universe from a fundamentally different perspective — that everything was connected and could be explained by rational scientific principles, like Lucretius was suggesting — was sacrilegious. But he said “don’t fear”, “stay calm”, “tend to your garden”.
For us, I think we need this perspective again. Our gods and stresses are fast, vacuous news, ads, work and celebrities. I’m not a scientist or a poet, so I’m not going to give you anything like he did. But I am going to try and achieve the same ends with a different means. We have ‘mindfulness’ and a lot of mumbo-jumbo around that now; I think this is useful. But here I’m offering a different kind of place, one place on the internet to enjoy and appreciate the things we’ve got more deeply. To learn from the struggles of human beings throughout the years, and think on what inspiration we can take from them. A calming place, for calming reflection, to give you something interesting to keep your brain occupied while your heart travels with us across small oceans of time, space and character.
I hope you enjoy it. And please do write in with anything you think worth adding in.