Philip Pullman: Institutionalised paranoia is the enemy of a thriving society

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The Independent Online

I want to say something briefly about how virtue manifests itself in daily life, local life. I saw three things that gave me hope that the spirit of common public civic virtue is still alive. One of the examples I call "folk traffic calming". There were families living in a residential street that had become a rat-run for cars. They held a demonstration to show that the street is for everyone – not just people in large mobile heavy steel objects. They set up a living room in the road with a sofa and a coffee table and held a tea party. They put planters along the road containing bushes and small trees, not blocking it, just calming the traffic. The result was that cars could get through easily but had to slow down. Everyone shared the whole space.

The second thing I saw was a foundry on an industrial estate in Leicestershire. They make castings for sculptures – from the minute to the monumental. The company started 20 years ago from nothing. They now have over 80 craftspeople working flat out. When I visited them a couple of weeks ago, every corner was busy with creative activity. That is an example of what I mean by virtue – the goodness of productive work. The nation is a better place because of it.

The third thing I saw was a television programme. With a poet laureate in this country, we also have a children's laureate – at the moment it is Michael Rosen, a great man I think. The programme was about a project he undertook with a school in South Wales where books had been undervalued for one reason or another. He showed the children and their parents and the teachers the profound value of reading and what it can do to deepen and enrich our life, and not by following guidelines and targets and putting the children to tests, but by the beginning and ending with delight. Enchantment. Joy.

What have these things to do with freedom and threats to freedom? What has the virtue of delight to do with virtue of liberty? Everything. Suspicion cannot sustain delight for very long. Joy does not flourish in the garden of anxiety. The society that these lawmakers seem to want to bring about is one of institutionalised paranoia and low-level panic. We are a better people than our government believes we are. We are a better nation.

Philip Pullman spoke at the Convention on Modern Liberty on Saturday