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A Handmade Life - William Coperthwaite

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default A Handmade Life - William Coperthwaite

Post by Chilli-head 19th October 2015, 6:33 pm

This is a book I've been eyeing for a while on Amazon – I guess it appeared in the “recommended for you” list because I have bought some John Seymour books, and having heard of his death in late 2013 I finally got a copy; eventually I found some time to read it !

Obviously the title drew me to this book, and this quote that appears on the back sleeve:

I want to live in a society where people are intoxicated with the joy of making things.”

Now they say you can't judge a book by the cover, and it's fair to say I didn't find what I was hoping for in this book.  For those who don't know of Coperthwaite, he was a yurt building pioneer, an educator, an advocate of folk crafts and simple living.  But this book contains little of a practical nature; rather it is about philosophy and social engineering.  A couple of adjectives are used frequently and throughout in a much more generalised sense than their normal definiton;  “democratic”, including with reference to objects (e.g., an axe) which I take to mean “accessible to all”, and “violent” - his broad classification of violence seems to include any forced action, or action that detriments others.

Some aspects of his views are thought provoking; much of it seemed flawed to me though.  Here is a particularly rich example:

Imagine a world in which nobody is for hire – where nobody works for pay, nearly all work being done for the enjoyment, for the feeling of being useful, or for the desire to learn. Everyone would be required to do his or her own  work, or else convince others to trade labour.

Doctors would sweep their own floors; bankers would wash their own windows. The CEO of General Motors would change his own oil.  [anti-royalist digression snipped]

The challenge would  be using those resources in the most efficient way to produce necessities we cannot make (or prefer not to make) at home – dental instruments, jet airplanes, oil refineries, steel mills and so on. I believe these things could be supplied with between one and two hours per day from each of us.

Where to start ! The assumption that others can be made to share his love of work and learning ? The waste of the talent and training of the doctor by having him sweep the floor ?  The deprivation of the livelihood of  man who could be sweeping the floor ? The idea that all the items you can't make by hand at home could require just a couple of hours a day ?

Another radical view is that all learning should be voluntary; “Forced learning is violence”.  Schools where lesson attendance is optional have been tried.  There was a story about one on the BBC fairly recently;  it was not the success Coperthwaite might have hoped. Fun now easily outweighs long term benefit in the eyes of the young !

Then there is the story about the basket belonging to a woman selling olives at a Mexican market.  The basket was particularly finely hand crafted, and he was determined to have it. But she didn't want to sell – she'd have nothing to hold her olives. He offers to buy the olives too. She still doesn't want to sell – she'd have no produce to sell at the market.  Eventually he offers to return at the end of the day, and buy from her the basket and any remaining olives.  He seems to tell this tale proudly, but to me – he didn't need the basket; he wanted it because he thought it was beautiful.  Rather than find where it came from and go and buy another, he instead used his wealth to deprive the woman – who clearly didn't want to sell – of hers.

It is a rare thing for a book I so looked forward to reading to leave me feeling quite so annoyed !
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default Re: A Handmade Life - William Coperthwaite

Post by freebird 20th October 2015, 10:49 am

I know we have just been given the bits you have chosen to share, but I find the ideas strange to say the least. I think my main argument and belief is that working for enjoyment is a luxury. I like to be occupied, but the thought of trying to extract parsnips from the frozen ground because I won't have any dinner otherwise is not my idea of enjoyment.

I like the idea of bartering skills - I was approached some years ago to teach calligraphy to someone who would in return teach me silver smithing and jewellery making. Trouble was, I didn't want to learn those things. They had no practical value for me as I wear little jewellery.

'Forced learning' I have some sympathy with. But rather than making school/lessons optional, making subjects optional, to allow children to follow their talents and inclinations. Essential skills can be woven into most subjects by a sufficiently enthusiastic teacher - weights and calculations into cookery, along with methodical work, reading and researching recipes, science behind the processes as just one example.

This could develop into a very long post, but I have to go and spend about an hour and a half at the supermarket for the week's food, rather than most of my waking hours making sure we don't starve!

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default Re: A Handmade Life - William Coperthwaite

Post by Chilli-head 21st October 2015, 11:55 am

Good post Freebird.

I mentioned that some of his ideas were thought provoking.  Some I had quite a bit of sympathy for.  The notion that we have much too negative an image of work, and that the "forced learning" we subject children to might be the first stage of building that negativity.  But whenever I tried to find a good quote, it always seemed to read back as socialist somewhere way out to the left with Marx, Lenin, Mau and Corbyn !

For a more positive view on Coperthwaite and his legacy, the following link is worth a look:


There's a good photo gallery there.  I have to say I'm in awe of what he has built, and his practical achievements.  I just wish more of that were in his book !

As an aside though, this reminds me of one of the thoughts I had whilst watching Kevin McCloud's Escape to the wild series.  Coperthwaite bought 500 acres of land, including 4-5 miles of Maine coastline to build his homestead. A great starting point, but there just isn't the space for everyone to do that.  Doesn't fit within his notion of "democratic", I would have thought.
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