All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.
T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
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We all have dreams. Some of us continue to merely dream them, but others find the courage to make them reality. And to my great delight, two such individuals – or, rather, books by or about such individuals – found their way into my Christmas stocking. And given that I’d read them cover to cover by new year, you can probably guess that I found them both rather riveting.
The first book was astronaut Chris Hadfield’s ‘An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth’, which is by turns an autobiography, a fatherly advice session (in a good way) and a user’s guide to operating and living on a space station.
As anyone with an internet connection will know, Hadfield has recently returned from six months as commander of the International Space Station, a period in which he single-handedly revived the US space programme (not bad for a Canadian) with his peerless use of social media to inspire awe in us mere Earth-bound mortals.
The really inspirational bit about Hadfield’s story, though, is that when he decided to become an astronaut (at age nine), Canada didn’t even have any. Or, for that matter, any plans to recruit some. But Hadfield didn’t let that tiny glitch stop him. Instead, as he recounts in the book, he just got on with doing what one would do if one were going to be an astronaut. So for his nine-year old self, this meant studying rather than watching TV, for example, and eating vegetables rather than crisps. Little, everyday decisions that paved the way to achieving his goal.
The theory behind this was that, should the opportunity to be an astronaut ever arise, he would be in the best position to take advantage of it. And it worked. When Canada finally decided to send people into space, Hadfield was a highly qualified military test pilot, with a bachelors degree in mechanical engineering and a masters degree in aviation systems. The rest, as they say, is history. Or, at least, readily available on Twitter. (And, obviously, in this highly readable book.)
The second book has a similar message, but in a context that could not be more different. In ‘The Village Against the World’, journalist Dan Hancox charts the foundation and survival of the Spanish village of Marinaleda. It’s one of many Andalusian farming villages, but differs from the others in that, for the last thirty five years, it has been run, to all intents and purposes, as a modern-day socialist ‘utopia’.
At the heart of the village is its charismatic mayor, Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo, who seems to have almost single-handedly kept the village together, while the rest of Spain comes apart at the seams. The village’s farm and processing plant are collectively owned, unemployment is low and community housing is available at a ‘mortgage’ of only 15 euros a month.
Not content with his success at the local level, Sanchez Gordillo has taken his fight to the regional and national government, demanding greater support for those most in need. His revolutionary ideas didn’t go down well with mainstream politicians in the 80s and 90s, and they meet with even less support in the market-dominated era in which we now find ourselves. But with over a quarter of adults in Spain – and over half of young people – out of work, Sanchez Gordillo’s people-centric message is clearly striking a chord.
While the big banks and the International Monetary Fund tell us that budget cuts and government sell-offs are the only way, this almost-messianic figure in a small village in the middle of nowhere demonstrates that there is, actually, an alternative. Like Chris Hadfield, Sanchez Gordillo has a dream. And, despite the threats and insults levelled at him from those set on their neo-liberal course, he is managing (just) to keep its fragile flame alight in his cupped hands.
Hadfield and Sanchez Gordillo. Dreamers, both. And, in the words of the great T. E. Lawrence, acting on their dreams with open eyes. Dangerous men, indeed. And an inspiring start to 2014.