Jonathan Dodd: Sewing the Town Together

Jonathan Dodd returns with his Sunday column and this week shares the detail about something very special that he and many other volunteers have been involved with in Ryde. It’s spectacular and something everyone should see.

ryde sewn by jonathan dodd

Jonathan Dodd’s latest column. Guest opinion articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication. Ed

Creativity and inspiration. It’s quite true what Thomas Edison said – “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”. Even though 99% of people think it was Albert Einstein who said that. I suppose it’s because very few people now have any idea who Edison was, and they have at least heard of Einstein, even though they aren’t really sure what he was famous for.

albert einstein

Still, we live in an age of ignorance, where you just need a name and a face that gets remembered, more for your hairstyle than your actual achievements. But in this case, Einstein does trump Edison, because he had instantly recognisable hair, stuck his tongue out, rode a bike and invented Relativity, and Edison only invented the telephone (among many other things), but, crucially, he looked just like any other male Edwardian.


Sorry, Mr Edison, that’s the way things are now. History has a disturbing tendency to lose facts in a melange of images, as faulty memory and learning causes those times past to fade and blur. I once read a science fiction book in which the only person that was remembered from the Twentieth Century of our planet was Adolph Hitler. It didn’t say why, but I’m assuming it was the hairstyle and moustache that did it. We can never be certain whether we do justice to those who went before us.

We need to grow memorable hair
Just look at the historical injustice done to Richard III, whose body was recently dug up from a municipal car park in Leicester, rather than any great cathedral, where most kings and queens ended up. His enemy and nemesis, Henry VII, did a great job besmirching his character and achievements, and even turned a slight curvature of the spine into a sizeable hunchback so he could be made fun of. Hunchbacks weren’t guaranteed civil and social rights then.

richard III

Perhaps we should be more circumspect with history. It’s no surprise to me that early societies, before written records, allowed some leeway with the storytelling, and people in those stories started to represent universal truths and recognisable qualities, both good and bad. We like our stories simple, because things we need to think about give us headaches. On the whole, if we want to be remembered historically, we need to grow memorable hair, and a lot of publicity. I suppose that’s what Trump managed to do successfully, and Boris Johnson is not doing very well at all.

Miniature jagged cushions
Better by far to find something smaller, and local, and be inspired to create something beautiful and memorable, which includes the participation of many people. I’ve recently been involved in a small way with just such a project, and it’s been brilliant.

Ryde Arts commissioned a project to sew a representation of the town of Ryde, and install the results in Ryde Library. Yesterday it was opened by the Mayor and it’s available for all to see, hanging in the large space above the bookshelves in Fiction. It’s a wonder to see.

sewing the town together 2 - j dodd

The project was comprised of two elements. Firstly, cloth was collected and dyed using natural or found materials, including indigo and rust, and various other substances. This was produced in a series of workshops attended by local people. The next stage was to make a large map of Ryde, divided up by Postcode area, and hand these out to volunteers to sew the roads on, and then to add a stitch for every person living in that area. We ended up with a graphic representation of Ryde in material and thread that contained a specific mark for every resident. Many people took away these materials, and faithfully sewed away, and they were all returned, and then were padded and backed, like miniature jagged cushions. All of these sewn areas would then be assembled into a mesh with gaps between them, and lifted to hang in the air in the Library, for all to see.

Their own individual recognisable styles
This was an enormous amount of effort, mostly done by volunteers, some of whom hadn’t ever sewed or embroidered, each of whom followed the instructions and used their creativity to produce their own individual recognisable styles. Getting the whole thing up in the air was a lot of work too. I hope it’s seen and visited for a long time. I for one will never forget being a part of it. I love the idea that someone thought about making the map, and sewing it, and dying the material, and putting it up in the air, and then it had to be done, and all the difficulties and hurdles had to be dealt with, and all the uncertainties wrestled with and overcome, and despite the ridiculousness of the task and the lack of precedent, and the opportunities for public humiliation had it failed, it came together and succeeded, and it was a wonder. That’s the inspiration and the perspiration. Both were needed, in the right proportions, and it worked.

sewing the town together 3 - j dodd

I tend to think that the history of humans, properly represented, should be about this kind of work. Not the great wars and empires and voyages of discovery so much, but the individual effort and vision of this person and that person, coming together and working towards something that’s local, and recognisable, and achievable, although only with a lot of struggle and effort. These are the things that make our lives special and memorable. These are the things that make us feel good about ourselves, because we make a commitment and we see it through, and we can see and celebrate the results. This is what makes it glorious to be human, and to live side by side with other humans. This is what makes us great.

A combination of trust and ingenuity and teamwork
My particular best moment was on Thursday, two days before the official opening. A group of us laid the sewn pieces that had been attached together on the Library floor and contemplated how we were going to suspend it in the centre of the open space above us, across the gallery around the upper floor. There were several complicated factors that had to be overcome. None of us had done anything like that before, and we didn’t know how on earth we were going to do it. But we did, with a combination of trust and ingenuity and teamwork, and we amazed ourselves.

sewing the town together 4 - j dodd

I was reminded of a wonderful moment in the film Shakespeare in Love that addresses this very phenomenon. I found the quote. There’s a conversation between a very angry investor believing his money is going to be lost, and the very frightened theatre manager, in an impossible position and threatened with run and possible violence.

“Let me explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of unsurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster. Believe me, to be closed by the plague is a bagatelle in the ups and downs of owning a theatre.”
“So what do we do?”
“Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.”
“I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”

I was a part of that mystery. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

sewing the town together 5 - j dodd

Thanks to Ryde Arts, Ryde Library, Abi Wheeler and Carol Ann Eades, and to everyone who participated.

Visit Ryde Arts on Instagram for more photos.

If you have been, thank you for reading this.

Image: Jonathan Dodd
Image: George Hodan under CC BY 2.0
Image: Google_Art_Project under CC BY 2.0
Image: Mike Searle under CC BY 2.0
Image: Jonathan Dodd
Image: Jonathan Dodd
Image: Jonathan Dodd
Image: Jonathan Dodd

Opinion Piece

Sunday, 23rd September, 2018 11:52am



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