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Bury me in paper

How will the “Zelig of all materials” fare in the digital age?

Let me tell you a story. It’s a story that has not been told enough, and that we need to remind ourselves of as we grow ever further from its simple meanings and its truth. It is a creation story. An epic story of origins. A story that begins in good old-fashioned fabular fashion with a eunuch in an emperor’s court in imperial China and his discovery of a strange new invention. It features great heroes and villains and it encompasses the lives and fates of every nation. And it is a story that has no conclusion, despite doommongers peddling endless rumours of its imminent end.

The story begins around 105AD with our eunuch, Cai Lun, a court official of the Han Dynasty, reporting on an invention that used mashed-up tree bark to produce an extraordinary material. Macerated bark fibres, says Cai Lun, are being mixed with water in a vat, into which a mesh or mould is dipped and from which the excess liquid is drained; the resulting pulpy mass is then hung to dry. This thing, this thin white precious thing, is – of course! – paper. And the story paper tells is the story of civilisation.

As we are weighed down with our everproliferating items of corporatised, licensable digital kit, and become ever more like anthro-info-conduits – walking, talking human slurry pits of undigested data – it is often easy to forget that paper was and is and is likely to remain the most ubiquitous, the most useful and also the most easily recyclable of man-made communication devices. Indeed, paper is still the ancient communication device that all modern communication devices seek, pathetically, to emulate: cheap to make and easy to inscribe; durable, readable, portable, disposable; the screen as the ultimate page.

But that is not all. Paper is and always has been more than just a medium for commu - nication. It’s more than just the archetypal data storage system. It has a much darker, stranger, more profound history. It performs numerous other obvious and important roles in our lives, roles that our tablets and e-readers and smartphones can’t even begin to emulate or adopt. What is the biggest difference between an iPad and a notepad? Honestly? Seriously? You can’t wipe your arse with an iPad – not yet. Paper still reaches the parts that other products cannot reach. It plumbs untold depths and scales great heights. It is art, litter, money, trash. It’s the bearer of good news: a transmitter of despair. Steel, timber and concrete may usefully serve as the foundations of a house, but for 2,000 years paper has served as the foun - dation of entire cultures, governments and economic systems.

Paper also remains the spiritual technology par excellence, the perfect multifaith, multipurpose platform for almost any religious event or occasion, and it has the advantage over other popular spiritual technologies, such as blood, animal carcasses, crystals, hairshirts, metal cilices or Scientology E-Meters, because it is light, flexible and flammable, is capable of being decorated and inscribed, and does not require batteries.

In Hong Kong and China and Taiwan, people buy mock-money and cardboard ingots and all sorts of other paper gewgaws and tchotchkes, as well as big-ticket items, including paper fridges and cookers and cars, as gifts to be burned for their dearly departed and to ease their passage through the Other World. Our world, too, this lower world, remains a vast realm of pulp, where we propitiate the gods and please ourselves with ream upon ream of paper. Basically, we are living in a giant joss shop.

Anything and everything has been made from paper. The current standard industry figures suggest that there are roughly 14,000 designed end uses for the stuff, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are, in addition, all the undesigned end uses, and all the odd end uses we no longer have a use for.

Unlikely as it seems, paper has been used to make wheels – on American railway cars in the 19th century (though they had the obvious disadvantage of often bursting into flames). And flying machines: the Montgol - fiers, lest we forget, were a family of papermakers, their balloons made of paper and silk. And boats: back in the 1990s the Scottish artist George Wyllie sailed his 80-foot artwork Paper Boat both down the Clyde and up the Hudson. (Wyllie was following in the considerable paper-wake of John Taylor, whose epic autobiographical poem “The Praise of Hemp-seed: with the voyage of Mr Roger Bird and the Writer hereof, in a Boat of browne-Paper, from London to Quinborough in Kent”, published in 1620, has to be read to be believed.)

During the 18th and 19th centuries, manufacturers discovered that just about every sort of household item and requisite could be moulded and made from cheap papier mâché and tricked out with decorative transfer-print floral designs – and so they were, including beds, wardrobes, cupboards, whatnots and tea trays. You might almost have lived in a house made entirely of paper –wallpapered, paper curtains, paper carpet, paper furniture – and dressed in paper clothes. Paper, to borrow a phrase from the German paper sculptor Thomas Demand, is the Zelig of all materials. It can be cut, folded, bent, twisted, lacquered and waterproofed into objects of any shape and size. It is also delightfully easily disposed of. The architect Frank Gehry, who dabbled with cardboard furniture back in the early 1970s, remarked: “The nice thing about it is that you can simply tear off a bit and throw it away if you don’t like it.”

But these are only the more obvious, outer manifestations of our deep-rooted paper culture, the paper-crust, as it were, the everyday world of artefacts and objects. What is truly astonishing is the vast hidden substratum of paper that has informed and determined our lives and our identities and our imaginations, so much so that we might rightly be described as paper people, creatures spawned on rags and sheets, announced in newsprint and filed away in endless paper archives. Think about it: everything that matters to us – still – happens on paper. We are born, and are issued with a birth certificate. We collect more certificates at school. And another when we marry. And yet another when we divorce, and buy a house, and die. We are encased and inscribed with deeds and contracts, engrafted into paper, which becomes our artificial skin – and which outlives us.

Byron in canto three of Don Juan meditates on “to what straits old Time reduces/Frail man, when paper — even a rag like this,/Sur - vives himself, his tomb, and all that’s his”. Paper records and determines how we live and, indeed, where we live. In her book Estates: an Intimate History (2007), Lynsey Hanley describes growing up on the Chelmsley Wood Estate in Birmingham and the great postwar project of urban renewal and regeneration, a project born on paper and executed on the drawing boards of the Labour government. (The process worked roughly like this: Richard Crossman, Labour’s minister for housing, legislated for Birmingham City Council to purchase green-belt land; the city architect, a Mr Maudsley, signed off the plan; and then, five years later, after all the blueprints and site drawings, the work was complete and all those people who had spent years on a waiting list got to move into their new homes.) Paradise, made from paper.

Paper-made prisons, too. One of the most fascinating and shocking works on Nazi technocracy and bureaucracy is Die restlose Erfassung (1984) by the German investigative journalist Götz Aly and social historian Karl Heinz Roth, translated into English in 2004 as The Nazi Census. The book describes exactly how the complex system of identification cards and population registers allowed the Nazis first to locate and then to monitor the Jews in Germany, making them, finally, easily available for murder and extermination.

A more recent example of the casual link between paper documents and death can be found in Africa, in Rwanda in 1994, with the mass slaughter of the Tutsi population by Hutu militiamen. The political scientist Timothy Longman has summed up the disturbingly simple equation at work there: “Since every Rwandan was required to carry an identity card, people who guarded barricades demanded that everyone show their card before being allowed to pass. Those with ‘Tutsi’ marked on their cards were generally killed on the spot.”

So, paper has long been used by tyrants and oppressors: a technology imposed on us from outside, by others and by the state, constructing our identity for us and through us, punishing us, crushing us, even killing us. (Paper as a weapon? Of course, of course. From bomber-kites to war games to gun cartridge casings to uniforms and armour, paper has been used in every conceivable fashion both to inflict torture and to protect from pain. In China during the late Tang Dynasty, Governor Xu Shang trained a notorious elite army of a thousand men who were equipped with armour made of thick layers of paper; they were invincible. And in Essex in the 1970s, we children used to make V-shaped paper pellets from blotting paper, which was heavy, and which stung, and which left a satisfying inky stain.)

Yet paper is also the means by which we have most often shaped ourselves in becoming individuals, interiorised, unique and distinct. It is the means by which we have enjoyed and embraced and enhanced our lives: art, games, puzzles, literature, diaries, scrapbooks, photos, mementoes. This is the great paradox of paper. It makes us legible; it also makes us erasable – memorable and dispensable, priceless and worthless at the same time. Just as we have used paper to plan and to implement death and destruction, so, too, we have used it to resist and to attempt to overcome that inevitable destruction. We have used paper to protest and to plead our case.

Take the Germans announcing their imminent arrival in Paris in 1940 using air-dropped leaflets, or the millions of leaflets that were dropped on Iraq during the Gulf war, or the estimated 20 billion leaflets dropped over Vietnam by the Americans, all of them bearing essentially the same message, over and over again: surrender or die. And take, in contrast, the example of the Sasaki family.

On the morning of 6 August 1945, the Sas - akis – the mother, Fujiko, her four-year-old son, Masahiro, her two-year-old daughter, Sadako, and her mother-in-law, Matsu – were eating breakfast. A neighbour called out and told them to look up into the sky. Mrs Sasaki went outside, looked at the parachutes, and returned inside. Then the sky exploded. Mrs Sasaki and her children survived the bomb on Hiroshima but Sadako developed leukaemia, caused by the radiation. In hospital, Sadako began to fold paper cranes; she had heard the old story that if you fold a thousand paper cranes, your wish will come true. Taking the sheets of paper used to wrap medicines, Sadako folded one and a half thousand origami cranes. She died on 25 October 1955, aged 12. Her parents buried her with hundreds of the cranes and distributed the rest to her friends and classmates, who decided to honour her example of fortitude by campaigning with her family to have a statue erected in her memory. And so, in 1958, on 5 May, Children’s Day in Japan, a statue of Sadako holding a paper crane was unveiled at the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima. To this day, visitors bring their own origami cranes to the memorial to pray for peace.

I should confess at this stage, in case you hadn’t guessed, that I am a fulltime paper-stainer, my life having been spent with consuming and producing paper products – writing books and articles, to no great success, it has to be said, no great profit or gain, a life spent amid paper, marking paper, marking time. Which makes me, I suppose, in a phrase from Captain Francis Grose’s Lexicon Balatronicum: a Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit and Pickpocket Eloquence (1811), a “paper scull”, “A thin-scull’d foolish fellow”. I am like Sammy Mountjoy, the narrator of William Golding’s great novel Free Fall (1959): “I tick. I exist. I am poised eighteen inches over the black rivets you are reading, I am in your place, I am shut in a bone box and trying to fasten myself on the white paper. The rivets join us together and yet for all the passion we share nothing but our sense of division.”

Perhaps my greatest testimony to paper will be my burial in an Ecopod, a beautiful coffin hand-made from recycled newspapers in Brighton by a father and son, Peter and Gar Rock, and finished with paper made from 100 per cent mulberry pulp, each one equipped with carrying straps and a calico mattress, feather linings an optional extra. The coffins come in white, gold, plain indigo blue, indigo blue with white screen-printed doves, plain Indian red, Indian red screenprinted with an Aztec sun, plain forest green, or forest green with a screen-printed Celtic cross. I’m going for the forest green with the Celtic cross.

There is no denying that we are entering a world beyond paper – or certain forms of paper. Whither books? Yet we need to remember that books existed before paper and that they will exist long after paper. It is far too early to dismiss or ignore paper in all its other uses. As Jacques Derrida once pointed out, “To say farewell to paper today would be rather like deciding one fine day to stop speaking because you had learned to write.”

Production and consumption of paper are increasing, not decreasing. According to current information, approximately 83 million rolls of toilet paper are produced each day. Slowly, alternatives to wood pulp are being adopted, even by the big paper-producing companies, to meet the growing demand for sustainable sources of fibre: kenaf, hemp, jute and flax. Paper pulp can be made from any kind of macerated vegetable fibre, as it was in ancient China: bark, nettles, reeds, cow parsley, cotton, bamboo, yucca, cellulose recovered from dung – anything that can provide that precious, seminal fluid to make our tea bags and our bandages, our beer mats and our board games, our cigarettes and shoeboxes, our tickets, tags and labels.

Even in the digital age, paper remains the ghost in our machines, the shadow behind every act of hi-tech digital communication. The word-processing document I am typing into and on to has the appearance of a sheet of fresh white paper. In the corner of the screen sits an image of a waste paper basket. There are pages, paragraphs and margins. I will “file” the “document” in a “folder”. Our most cherished new technologies still resemble the page: the iPad is like a jotter; the Kindle like a book; the mobile phone a pocket diary. The paper book is dead, but the story goes on. Long live paper!

Ian Sansom is the author of “Paper: an Elegy” (Fourth Estate, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers