Writing

The answer is never silence

I’ll be honest; this hasn’t been a great year for me when it comes to writing. On December 6 my big project of the moment, the audio drama of Romeo and Juliet: A Novel, goes live and I couldn’t be more excited about that. But I wrote R&J last year. Then the fourth Pieter Vos novel in Amsterdam. Then, at the beginning of 2016, I decided to set out and write something different.

I already had an uneasy foreboding about what was coming. At no point did I actually manage to convince myself that the twin calamities of Brexit and Donald Trump would happen. But something at the back of my head kept nagging, saying… they might.

The first six months of this year, then, I spent trying to write a long, dynastic dystopian book set in a Paris shattered after the collapse of Europe. The first in a planned series of three. I finished it a few weeks before the Brexit vote feeling, as you do with new work, pretty good. Then came June, the result, and the realisation I’d missed the mark with that book too. Six months labour and research and more than 130,000 words down the drain.

After Brexit I just didn’t know what to write. Happily a script adaptation project came along — of which more in a while. It was a welcome diversion, something into which I could dive headlong, burying myself in its complexities, trying to learn more about drama, an engaging challenge I love, and not have to face the difficult prospect of making up a story of my own.

I finished it. Come November I watched the Trump bandwagon roll in, then watched the votes too, bewildered by the strange complexities of the American electoral system. And I thought: what the hell can I write now? What does it matter? When I started out writing I decided to regard my books as Post-It notes to my kids. Little letters that said, ‘I’m scared too, I’m baffled, but inside us all somewhere is a sense of beauty, of society, of friendship and love, of the notion that life isn’t about individuals but what we all hand on to those who come after. It may appear we hide this under a sea of banality, selfishness and solipsism from time to time, but in the end the truth will out.’

Not an easy proposition when the new chief strategist at the White House is a man whose ex-wife said in a deposition (back in 2007, long before this) that he didn’t want their daughters going to school with Jews.

I know I’m far from the only one who’s struggled with the question: what do you write in times like these?

Journalism? If only. But most of that has been ripped to pieces by the internet that’s stolen its content and its advertising and offered stupid cat pictures and a tsunami of anonymous hatred in return. Or replaced by fake news posing as real, not that the networks that disseminate it seem to care.

Agitprop? No. That’s not me. Besides, more importantly, one thing that’s surely become apparent over the last year is that too many people spend too much time preaching to the converted. I tweeted this the day before the US vote and something similar before Brexit too.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

People of like minds telling each other they’re right doesn’t change a thing. If anything Twitter and Facebook may have exacerbated the situation by making anonymous trolling and vicious bile part of the daily norm. According to one of the anonymous trolls having a crack at me on Twitter I am just one more failed ‘libtard’ (which I take to be an attempt at an offensive combination of the words ‘liberal’ and –I type this for the first and last time in my life in this context — ‘retard’).

None of these faceless would-be bullies know what my politics are; I’m not even sure what they are myself. Life, for most of us, isn’t a football game where you support your side however bad, however foolish they may seem. Over the years I’ve voted for each of the main three parties in the UK on occasion, based solely on the simple idea: which one seems to have the most useful ideas at the moment you enter the booth?

If pressed for a political philosophy I imagine mine would have to look a bit like this:

  • I detest bigotry and racism and thought, wrongly, we were moving past all that.
  • The last sixty years of peace and prosperity in Europe stem in large part from the European Union. It may not be perfect but it’s better than a free-for-all I’m-alright-Jack alternative.
  • Women have had a rough deal in society, in work in particular, and there’s still a long way to go.
  • People’s private lives are their own and it’s none of my business what their sexual preferences are.
  • While I’m an atheist I feel people should be allowed to follow their religious beliefs as they see fit within the law. At the same time I expect them to treat me with the same respect and not regard those who believe differently as lesser human beings.
  • Violence is rarely an answer to anything and if you’ve read my books over the years you might have noticed that when violence occurs — and it does — it tends to support that point.

I don’t believe any of these ideas set me out as a ‘liberal’. Just someone who grew up in a Europe trying to establish peaceful values after the horrors of the Second World War. Values which now seem greatly under threat.

All I write these days is fiction. And my first reaction to that when the results came rolling in was… isn’t it all a bit trivial set against the great, global swing of things? Aren’t writers even more disempowered than most people when all we trade in is a bunch of fairy stories, for adults in my case, designed to amuse and yes, provoke, but entertain most of all?

First reactions are invariable wrong. As always I needed to look to much greater writers than I’ll ever be to find the answers.

I thought about Carlo Levi writing his wonderful Christ Stopped at Eboli, a brave Jew documenting life under Mussolini while being sheltered from the Nazis by courageous Florentines.

I thought about Alexandre Solzhenitsyn going to the gulags for his opposition to communist Russia, exposing them finally, and admitting…

During all the years until 1961, not only was I convinced I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime, but, also, I scarcely dared allow any of my close acquaintances to read anything I had written because I feared this would become known.

I thought of Federico Garcia Lorca, shot dead by Franco’s thugs, his corpse thrown into a ditch outside Granada because he committed two cardinal sins: he backed the wrong side and he made no attempt to hide the fact he was gay.

I’m not that good and I’m not that brave. What they faced was far, far worse than anything we can begin to imagine. They risked their lives and still they wrote. What they understood — and we need to now — is that we are not being asked for our acquiescence. It’s our silence they demand. Because after that comes acquiescence and much worse will surely follow.

Look at the constant, lying attacks against not just journalism but individual journalists, and the blatant effort to single them out for intimidation at public events. The vile t-shirts that read ‘Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.’ In the Russia of Trump’s admired friend and possibly ally Putin journalists really are dying because they’re trying to do their job: hold power to account.

So the answer is simple: keep writing. Don’t give up. Funnel your fears, your hopes and your anger into telling it as you think it is.

This isn’t about resistance. This isn’t about protest. In a way it’s not even about changing people’s minds. It’s about the record. About setting down what happens and how we respond. It’s about those Post-It notes to your kids and the kids they’ll have in turn. For it looks as if they — and us — will need them.

The state of the world should be what fires us. Not a fearful beast that leaves us mute.

With that in mind please excuse me. There’s something I need to write.