Sustaining

This lecture was delivered to Creative Writing students at Birkbeck College on April 26th 2022. You can watch a low quality video of it here. Or listen to decent quality audio of it here.

I still love the smell of petrol – I can’t help it. It’s warm, sweet, powerful, modern. It makes me remember sitting in the hot backseats of my parents’ golden Peugeot 504 Estate, windows down, me and my sisters, waiting for my father to fill the tank with French essence – not petrol, essence. We would be driving from Calais to campsites with a swimming pool in the Dordogne, the Pyrenees. Or we would be driving to a beach, a river, a restaurant, a château. Or, at the end of the four or five weeks, all of us now darker than the car (because in 1976 sunbathing was good for you), we would be driving back to Calais. More than once, the day we drove back was August 20th – my birthday. I had several birthday parties in the laybys of Brittany and Normandy. All holiday, my mum had kept my presents wrapped and hidden in her suitcase. I would unwrap them in the middle of a gentle haze of exhaust fumes.

A Scale Model

I love the smell of petrol, but now, when I smell it, I know it smells of things other than the most luxuriant days of my childhood.

What I’m going to say today has been hard to write. It feels nowhere near as finished as some of the other lectures I’ve done, but I think that’s down to the subject – it’s emotional and global, it’s confusing and very simple. It involves guilt as well as anger. I know I’ve not managed to say everything as I should. Very often, in speaking of this subject, I join in with the general politeness, and positivity, and end up saying less than I mean. I’m still trying to figure the most basic things out, as, I think, are we all.

Is that a good memory, of France, of turning eight? What is a good memory? What do we do with our petrol-soaked past? What do we do with all the things we expected of our future – the powers, the distances? How do we keep going, with such exhausting confusion? What do we do? What should we do?

In my case, keep writing – writing my way towards an understanding and expressing of attempting a possible sustaining.

Beginning

I don’t like the word sustainability – it already feels brittle with having been stretched too far, stretched to cover the whole future of the whole planet.

Sustaining is a little better – suggesting a voice holding a high note, or food hearty enough to keep you going until the next meal.

Sustainability or sustaining – I can’t think of a quicker and more direct way of getting across what this lecture is about: it’s about how you can keeping going, as a writer, in a way that means your writing can continue to develop and deepen.

That can sound like quite a grind: keeping going.

Anyone who has written a novel, or a full-length work of non-fiction, will confirm that much of it – the process – is nothing but grind. And much of the secret of finishing is simply the obviousness of having kept going.

This doesn’t rule out gray periods of being stuck, giving up, of forget it, no, actually, forget the whole thing; and nor should it imply there will never be irridescent days of easy flow and miraculous invention.

Even writers have occasional days when they really feel like writers.

Dickens’ Dream, Robert William Buss

Very often, though, they feel like accountants, lawyers, project managers and tech support. (They also feel, on occasion, or for months at a time, like solo round-the-world yachtswomen, serial killers, archaeologists or morticians.)

All writers – all writers who intend to write more than a single book – need to work out ways of sustaining themselves through the grind.

Today, I’d like to help you think about sustaining yourself, as a writer, and sustaining the conditions around you that will allow you to continue to be a writer.

Small conditions of the desk, and vast conditions of being.

Today, I’d like to suggest that what is sustainable has already changed, and that what will be sustainable in future is certain to change even more – to the extent that it’s no longer recognisable, or perhaps even desirable.

But it still somehow seems like there’s a safe place, and everyone wants to get through the door before it’s shut.

I think a lot of workers, in a lot of different industries, have developed what I’d characterize as a bank robber or a Booker Prize mentality. ‘Just one last job,’ they say to themselves. ‘Just one big steal, then I can retire on the proceeds and buy a farm and live a good life.’

The job of writing is not one big steal. The job isn’t getting to a publishable level, once, with feedback from fellow students, with tutors’ advice fresh in your ears. The job is maintaining, year after year, an absolute consistency of attentiveness to and presence to language.

In other words, being able to say, ‘I am a writer’ and for that to be true.

Micro to Macro

I have begun bleakly as I feel that’s where we all might end; and I will return to the possibility of a completely other landscape, based in the ruins of our cities, before I move on to some more hopeful territory. But first I’m going to look at your basic material conditions.

I am going to move out from the microcosm to the macrocosm, just as the film Powers of Ten does. As everyone who has been taught by me in the last couple of years has seen.

(If you play it, please turn off the sound.)

Let’s start with sustaining you, physically.

The Body

Let’s talk about your spine.

Ouch.

Some writers write standing up. Towards the end of his career, Philip Roth’s back problems had become so catastrophic that he wrote whilst on a walking machine. Virginia Woolf wrote standing up, as did Ernest Hemingway on top of a bookshelf and Saul Bellow and Stan Lee and Vladimir Nabokov at a lecturn. And also Gogol, Kierkegaard, Dickens, Victor Hugo. (Yes, I’m aware they’re all but one of them men. I couldn’t find examples of women.)

However, writers are mostly sedentary animals.

Search for copyright free photographs of writers, and what you will find is someone retro and gothic on a typewriter, or – more often – with a mug of coffee or herbal tea beside them, sitting on the floor, or cross-legged on a tastefully grey sofa, or this guy –

This is bullshit. If this is how you aspire to write, or actually do write, you need to stop right now. It isn’t sustainable. To be able to manage long hours of work, or actually type for any decent period of time, you need a good sensible posture. Ergonomics.

You need a good chair. I would advise you to spend whatever you can afford on the best second-hand office chair you can find. Aeron are great; others are available. Ideally, it should be fully adjustable for height, angle, where the arms go. It’s also a good idea, for hot summers, if the bits that support your back and bum are porous mesh.

You need a desk or table at the right height. Perhaps you’ll find these things in your kitchen (rented or owned), or in a local café. Perhaps you’re lucky enough to have a room of your own, with a chair and desk of your own. If you’re going to sustain writing over a long time, these are things you’re going to have to work towards.

It’s better to work on a desktop computer with the screen raised to eye level or just below. If you write a whole novel like this, you will avoid killing your spine. Most writers, like most humans, have bad backs.

They’re not this guy –

Who is This Guy? What has he written?

Ideal conditions are not always ideal conditions: I knew Sue Townsend, the writer of the Adrian Mole books, and The Queen and I. She told me once that she’d had a marvellous office built for her, at the top of the house, with a large window, and wonderful light – but she never once used it. She still worked in a cleared space on the kitchen table, with the ironing on one side and a crumby plate on the other. The bespoke study didn’t feel like hers. She probably felt she’d write worse there. I think she was right.

Ideal conditions are not always ideal conditions, but a fucked up spine is a fucked up spine.

It’s good for you to alternate between typing and writing by hand, so everything isn’t typing. This, at least, varies the angle of your body, and the focal distance of your eyes. I once had a job making subtitles for TV programmes – Emmerdale, Blind Date, The Bill. The days involved nine and a half hours of typing. If I wanted to write on top of this, which I very much did, I could only manage it in a different form, with a different posture – that is, with pen and paper.

Eyesight

You should look after your eyes. Make sure the screen is neither too dim nor too bright. Have the font in a comfortable size. A bigger screen, where you can compare two pages alongside one another, can be useful. (But here I am advising you to buy things you, and also us, might not be able to afford…)

Take regular breaks.

(I don’t, but you should.)

Maybe not as often as one every fifteen minutes, as usually advised, but do get up at least once an hour.

Exercise

Margaret Atwood, in her essay ‘Polonia’, wrote, ‘If you want to be a novelist, do back exercises daily – you’ll need them later.’ [Burning Questions, 2022, pg 21.]

I once went to an osteopath with my spine problems. She told me to exercise. I expected her to give me some especially writerly stretches. ‘What exercise?’ I asked. ‘Any exercise,’ she said, ‘if you want to keep going.’

Walking is good, but I think you need to do something that is aerobic and stretches your muscles. Walking is too much like writing. I can only do it in a hunched up and concentrated way, as if I were still at the desk – as if I were looking for a lost ten pound note. Instead, I go swimming. Lots of writers go swimming.

Haruki Murakami runs, and has written about it in What I talk about when I talk about running.

This is part of the grind – the physical grind of sitting for eight or more hours a day.

Margaret Atwood knows all about this. She’s full of wisdom, and she can usually be persuaded to share it.

[At this point, I played a message of greeting from Margaret Atwood to Creative Writing students at Birkbeck College. In it she gave as her wisdom, ‘No-one sees it until you show it.’ You can listen to it, if you like.]

Outtake from Writers Rebel interview with Margaret Atwood

Summary

All of this adds up to one thing: If you want to be a full-time writer, if you want to have something to show to them, you need – physically – to be able to write full-time.

You need to create the material conditions in which this is possible.

All that workplace ergonomics stuff from the 1970s, it holds true. It is very hard to write well, and almost impossible to write for a long time, if you feel like someone is repeatedly jabbing a ballpoint pen in to your spinal cord.

Alexander Technique, Ashtanga Yoga, Swedish Exercises, lying feet up on the floor listening to Joni Mitchell’s Blue for the thousandth time – whatever it takes.

Apart from chocolate.

Try not to make chocolate or cigarettes part of your writing routine. (For much of the twentieth century there was a dialectic between typing and smoking – though it is, of course, possible to do both at once.)

Cigarettes were a beautiful pivot-point of writerly being: Write whilst within the tension of increasingly craving a smoke; re-read whilst within the relaxation of smoking; exhale creatively, inhale critically.

Our time now, in our clear-aired rooms, is not so easily divisible. (I am not advising you to take up, or to go back to, smoking; though it’s hard to wish that, say, Albert Camus or Clarice Lispector hadn’t smoked.)

Clarice Lispector, so much X Factor
Albert Camus, such a glamourpuss

The Writing Itself

How do you sustain the writing itself? How do you keep it going for long periods of time – days, decades? Those who find this easiest are those whose form of grind always gives them something to do – the biographer never lacks a task, the novelist (until the final signing off of proofs) always has some double-checking they can turn to. It’s the short story writer and, even more so, the poet who have difficulty joining up one period of writing with another. Some solve this problem by becoming editors of anthologies – which is a little like becoming a biographer; others drink or get intoxicated in some other way. It is hard to turn up regularly at the page when the moral of your work is that the poetry of life exists only in the irregularities, the assymetries, the ecstacies.

(The Lispector/Camus swap was deliberate, btw.)

Many writers sustain themselves by writing books in series. Publishers look very favourably on detective fiction or thrillers that follow on, one from the other. If you take the model of Walter Mosley, Patricia Cornwell, Mark Billingham, or Birkbeck’s own Amer Anwar, you’ll always have another book to write – a book that someone (always granted that the previous ones have sold) will want to bring out and promote. Because when you’re promoting the 11th book of a series, all of which are pretty similar, you are also promoting the previous ten books and yourself as a brand. Synergy.

However, and this is quite a big however, writers who return again and again to the same main character, characters, world or genre risk becoming bored, frustrated, angry. It can be catastrophic for their ego to believe that readers want them for one thing and one thing only. Like Conan Doyle, with Sherlock Holmes, they often try to kill off their Unique Selling Point. Then resurrect them.

The point these writers are at – a point you may envy – of being established, bestselling, recogniseable, may be the peak of their self-disgust. Imagine sitting down in your comfortable Aeron chair, at your perfect-height desk, every day – knowing that your job is to continue inventing worse tortures and more and more ingenious murders. Or that you had to aim to make people laugh out loud three times a page – even today, even with the news being what it is. For some writers, this self-repetition would be their ideal; for other’s, it’s a deal with the devil.

Perhaps you think I’m being too limited in my thinking. Crime writers can turn away from writing crime whenever they want, can’t they? Comedy writers can suddenly get serious.

Yes, writers can reinvent themselves, and change genre, but such 90 degree or 180 degree turns make editors nervous. And they make Sales and Marketing people despair.

Publishers – by which I mean everyone present at an acquisition meeting – want to know they have an author who the readers will recognise and follow and buy, even if they do introduce the odd jink into their straight path. Recent examples of writers to whom readers are very loyal are Maggie O’Farrell, Rachel Cusk, Tsitsi Dangarembga. Their success has been cumulative. Wherever they have gone, they have taken most of their readers with them – and added some more. (It helps to be regularly nominated for major prizes.)

From my side of things, which is not profitable, a more sustaining writing life than the crime serial stems from a deep fascination with what writing is, and what it can do that it hasn’t quite done before. This is writing as an attempt at art.

Here is Andrei Tarkovsky, speaking about another artform – cinema.

“It’s not hard to learn how to glue the film, how to work a camera. But the advice I can give to beginners is not to separate their work, their movie, their film, from the life they live. Not to make a difference between the movie and their own life. Because a director is like any other artist: a painter, a poet, a musician. And since it is required from him to contribute his own self, it is strange to see directors that take their work as a special position given to them by destiny, and simply exploit their position. That is, they live one way and make movies about something else. And I’d like to tell directors, especially young ones, that they should be morally responsible for what they do while making their films. Do you understand? It is the most important of all. Secondly, they should be prepared for the thought that cinema is a very difficult and serious art. It requires sacrificing of yourself. You should belong to it, it shouldn’t belong to you. Cinema uses your life, not vice versa. Therefore I think that this is the most important. You should sacrifice yourself to the art. That is what I have been thinking about recently in my profession.”

Andrei Tarkovsky, Voyage in Time, 1983

Writing uses your life, not vice versa.

The Books/The Paper

I’m now going to turn to the book itself, and to the publishing industry.

If you are a bestselling author, one of the earliest questions in the lifecycle of a book is ‘How many acres of trees in Norway do we need to buy for the wood pulp to print this?’ (A very bestselling author I know told me that when her editor has a good feeling about a book, and wants to print another 50,000 copies, they immediately buy up a bigger acreage.)

A bestselling author is the direct cause of large areas of deforestation.

Although the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) logo, present in many books, suggests these trees are from sustainably planted areas, that’s not true. Much older growth is still being felled in order to print the latest literary novel.

Hmm.

94% of the environmental cost of a book comes from the paper it’s printed on – not the writing, distribution or storage.

We will need to ask, very soon, which books are worth this? The market says, Books people want to read today.

I suggest, Books people will still want to re-read in five years’ time.

(The market is currently stronger than all opposition to the market. It is also, unsurprisingly, better at marketing its views.)

Books will need to be recycled into other books – using post-consumer waste – much more than we’re doing now. (At the moment, it’s better to read a novel on your phone, the phone you already own, than buy a Kindle or a hardback.)

Perhaps not in five years’ time, but definitely in ten, the books business is going to be a very different place. In the interim, there will be very large amounts of money to be made from distracting people, from giving them virtual anxieties in sympathetic genres – your novel, too, can be adapted for Netflix. I don’t know what state of mind you’ll need to be in, to be capable of doing this, writing those books; it’s no longer one I’m able to achieve. But perhaps I shouldn’t be telling you things you might not want to hear.

People never rejoice when you gift them a new anxiety.

Which brings our Powers of Ten macro-level up to that of climate.

Climate

Often, when I mention ‘climate’, to shorthand it as that – shorthand ‘climate emergency and biodiversity crisis’ so I don’t have to keep saying the words ‘emergency and biodiversity crisis’ – there’s a visible flinch in the audience. Oh no – why here? Didn’t we come here to get away from that?

You could argue that writing, in all its forms, even dystopian TV and cinema, affords us our main away from that.

Andrei Tarokovsky, Stalker

Dystopian fictions offer the comforts of dramatic structure. As collapses, they are formally satisfying.

But often when someone speaks about climate in a concerned or an alarmed way, they are immediately seen as a party pooper. Unfortunately, this particular party needs quite a lot of pooping.

I wish this wasn’t the case. How I wish this wasn’t the case! I wish I could have given you a straightforward lecture on the short story, or on point of view and time.

And how I envy the writers of 1850, who could see industrialisation as progress, or the novelists of 1950, would could look away from Hiroshima and Nagasaki and pretend the happenings of the drawing room really were events of note. But the Industrial Revolution and the coming of the Atomic Age were both foreshadowings and direct causes of the Climate and Ecological Emergency. It was once possible to see them as other than they now appear – just as it was possible for me to unquestioningly love the smell of petrol.

But I don’t think that point of view is sustainable any more. I don’t think it’s an honest story to tell. If I’m in an emergency, then I have to act as if I’m in an emergency. I have to speak directly about it – if clumsily, if inaccurately.

We’ve been here before. A communist, looking at where capitalism had brought the world in 1916, would have felt a similar urgency. A member of CND, seeing how the Cuban Missile Crisis played out in 1962, would have felt it. For similar reasons, both a global socialist revolution and universal nuclear disarmament are depicted as dead hopes. And yet the slogan which most drew me to Extinction Rebellion, apart from this one ‘Climate Change – We’re fucked’ was ‘Another World is Possible.’

Since 2019, I’ve been involved with Writers Rebel – part of Extinction Rebellion. I’ve been editor of their website. I’ve written a short book for them, called How to Tell a Story to Save the World. And one of the things we say we’ll do, as members of Writers Rebel, is bring up climate whenever we have a public platform, such as this one.

Believe me, I wish it were down to someone else to remind you of this, again. To awkwardly bring it up. But I firmly believe that politeness and avoiding embarrassment are – within a British context – a major part of what is holding us back. That’s what mainly annoys people about Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil – that they will keep insisting on mentioning what we’d all prefer to ignore. They tediously insist. God, not them, again. Sticking themselves to roads, again. Can’t they just shut up? Can’t they stop inconveniencing hard-working people who just want to go about their day-to-day business?

I’m afraid they can’t.

If they didn’t do that, insist upon the emergency, then the media wouldn’t cover it; if the media didn’t cover it, the politicians wouldn’t care about it; if the politicians didn’t care about it, they wouldn’t act on it; and if they didn’t act on it, then we would – collectively – be doing nothing – or what amounts to nothing.

Something, amounting to pretty much everything, needs to be done.

Please be assured – in all of this, I’m not saying that writing is only worthwhile if it directly addresses climate, or is full of explicit protest.

I will try to express this as simply and unmelodramatically as I can: the basis of writing has not changed, but it has been shown to be other than what we thought it was.

The realisation of this, the recognition, has come much later to those living in the northern hemisphere than it did to those in the global south. Within the study of imperialism and colonialism, it is a given that the basis of ‘developed societies’ – with their infrastructure and legal systems – is exploitative, polluting, genocidal and racist, and that it has always been dependent on turning the goods of other countries into commodities, and their people into slaves.

If you’d like to read more on this, I’d suggest Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, and the books in its bibliography.

Many human extinctions took place hundreds of years ago; many are continuing today.

It is only recently that something similar to this revelation and revaluation has become unavoidable within an ecological context – and that revelation and revaluation is ongoing.

What does it mean, for example, to drive your kids out to see the latest superhero movie, and then treat them to a Maccy D’s afterwards? What effect does that act of generosity and love, if also a little of giving in, have upon the world? What does it depend upon and what does it continue to call into being?

William S. Burroughs said of his novel Naked Lunch, and I think the words are themselves a revelation: ‘The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what’s on the end of every fork.’

(Perhaps a McDonald’s hamburger avoids being a naked lunch by being eaten without a fork.)

We are slowly coming to see, as if tracing the bright line backwards through sockets, wires, transformers, meters, mains, pylons, distribution plants, power stations, sometimes nuclear power stations – we are starting to see our energy as questionable. What do we make of it? What does it make of us? These are now a subject. (Even more so following the Russian attack upon Ukraine.)

To me, at least, they have become a self-consciousness (as those of you who have been reading my Diary will be aware).

This might go some way to explaining why a recent entry (26th February) began: ‘Is it immoral to use electricity?’ And why, as well as I’ve been able to express it, I included this sentence – on February 28th – about the world of market forces: ‘Just because a product is legal to consume does not make it ethical to produce.’

Among these unethical products I would not only include obvious ones such as private jets, SUVs and the BBC’s Octonauts’ magazine (with plastic crap on the cover of every issue).

The state of it.

I would also mention mobile phones with a built-in obsolescence of three to four years, and laptops that stop running their constantly updated operating systems after seven to eight years.

Nature

Much of what I’ve mentioned so far relates to the manufactured world, and is on the level of transactions. These products are the material basis of our society. I wrote this, and made the PowerPoint, on my computer. But there have been technologies since one stick was sharpened, since one stone was piled consciously upon another. What has changed even more profoundly, and the change is retrospective – changing also the meaning of what humans made and thought in 1500 CE and 2000 BCE – what has changed is Nature.

In a Swedish novel written in 1950, the flowering of the apple trees in Spring, the freezing of the mountain streams in Winter, the reaping of the corn in Autumn, the turning of the seasons, that is a fact; in 2022, it is a conceit – it is nostalgic wishfulness – it is part of the problem.

A Swedish novel, or a Ukranian novel.

(I have to be nationally specific about this because, as the Saint Lucian poet Derek Walcott pointed out on many occasions, hot and cold seasonality as a way of doing the passage of time, or the return of hope, was never a resource available to Caribbean writers. But Caribbean writers still have the natural metaphors of cutback and regrowth, of planting and harvest.)

Although it’s a very grand statement, probably the grandest I’ve ever made, I think it’s demonstrable: the central metaphor of human culture is the cyclical revival of nature.

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

That’s how Shelley puts it in ‘Ode to the West Wind.’

Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter.

Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been clear.

Here comes the sun…

That’s how George Harrison puts it.

Up until recently, Nature could be guaranteed to restore, in fact to resurrect what had died – perhaps not in the same form, perhaps radiant and glorified, perhaps as mould or slime.

That is over. That is no longer true.

Extinction is forever. I have never seen a dodo, except a stuffed one. When all the coral reefs of the world bleach, including those of Saint Lucia, there will never again be coral reefs – or not for millennia and millennia. Writers from islands covered over by rising seas will have nothing but the wilderness of exile and the salt of memory.

There are one-way processes in action, curtailed cycles.

(Looking beyond a human timescale, there have been extinction events before – five of them. But I’m assuming you’re not going to take much comfort from whatever evolutionary Spring follows a Nuclear Winter or a High Summer of desertification.)

I think this changes the meaning of what has been written, and changes the nature – the Nature – of what can and should be written from now on.

All fiction is climate fiction now. Either you’re looking at it, or you’re looking away from it. The direction of your looking is in relation to our relation to Nature.

What once restored us we ourselves need to restore, or we will die from its lack.

What was once our poetics of renewal has to become our politics of survival.

What depends upon the irreplaceable is, by definition, unsustainable.

I don’t believe, however terrible things get, that human beings will stop writing for one another, or rewarding those who write movingly and memorably. But whilst it’s been proved possible to plan a novel, and even to compose and memorize a sequence of poems, whilst in extreme poverty or in a labour camp, it’s unlikely that a future society based on subsistence farming, or on cannibalizing the dead technology of the past, will have the free time for more than songs, raps, jokes and myths.

If you’d like a version of this, a revived oral culture in a post-apocalyptic world, take a look at Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. This is one of the greatest twentieth century novels. Within the society Hoban pictures, words are still important – sometimes a person’s life and death depends on correct intonation – but there’s no such thing as publishing, or an archive. There are important speakers, and many storytellers, but no short story writers. It’s a horrible, avoidable world.

Obviously, the best way for this not to happen to all of us is for all of us to make sure this cannot happen.

Survivalist Literature

Writing is very robust. All texts first exist in a single manuscript or typescript. ‘Hamlet’. Beloved. Only a single copy of a book needs to survive for it to survive. The Diary of Anne Frank.

Sometimes there doesn’t even need to be a physical copy. Quite a few of the poems of the Soviet-era poet Osip Mandelstam exist and are read now because they were memorised by Nadezhda Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova.

Osip Mandelstam
Nadezhda Mandelstam
Anna Akhmatova

If we go back to Homer and Ovid, we see the codification of an oral culture. This was something people could carry with them as they walked – just as people know by heart Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell songs, or raps by Kendrick Lamar, Missy Elliott, or a thousand other lyricists.

Medieval forms were portable.

Writing about Dante, Osip Mandelstam said:

The question occurs to me – and quite seriously – how many shoe soles, how many ox-hide soles, how many sandals Alighieri wore out in the course of his poetic work, wandering about on the goat paths of Italy.

The Inferno and especially the Purgatorio glorify the human gait, the measure and rhythm of walking, the foot and its shape. The step, linked to the breathing and saturated with thought: this Dante understands as the beginning of prosody.

Osip Mandelstam, Conversations about Dante, trans. Clarence Brown

I first read this on page 227 of Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines. This book, now seen as questionable, is based on a vision of the first people having sung the land into existence – and that those lines still existed in the lineaments of hill, billabong and apparently featureless plain.

Humans made it up; fragments of it continue to exist.

What will survive of us is portable.

Hope in a Darkened Heart

Obviously, as I said, the best way for this not to happen is for all of us to make sure this cannot happen. I don’t mean us individually; I mean us collectively, actively, politically.

All of us who, when we smell petrol, smell our childhoods.

Because when the only ones left defending the pure profit motive are gangsters, you have our situation.

There is hope, if we can gang up against the gangsters.

Being eco-friendly is not enough, in days like these.

If you want to be a writer in twenty years’ time, you need to make that writing sustaining and sustainable – in any way you understand those words.

This goes from spine, to chair, to desk, to laptop, to paper, to book, to art, to world.

It may be that if you want to be a writer in twenty years’ time, if you want anyone to be a writer in twenty years’ time, then you may need to be something other than a writer right now.

And if you don’t want to take it from me, take it from Margaret Atwood.

Further reading:

Jay Griffiths, Why Rebel, Penguin, 2021

Andreas Malm, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Verso, 2021

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