Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Keep calm and carry on writing

Evening light

Last week I drafted some reflections on the Coronavirus lockdown, suggesting that a little more generosity – and reciprocity - would be no bad thing. My opening hook was a farmer’s call for the footpaths in Wales to be closed – and its contrast to the thousands who are working to keep supply chains open, serving us in shops, supporting and for that matter subsidising rural communities…

As is my way, I slept on the piece and before some final edits, explained its theme and tenor to Jane. Do you really want to wade into all that, she asked?  For the first time in more than in a decade of Views from the Bikeshed, I didn’t press the button to ‘publish’.

You might think that this period of isolation would be a delight for a writer: solitude, the time to reflect, a ready audience for their words... The reality, especially for essayists, is somewhat different. Writing - or at least, that worth reading - thrives on our openness to difference, a willingness of the reader to be challenged; at its best - whether it be poetry, fiction or a reflective blog post - writing helps us to see the world afresh.

Yet, at a time when that quality is arguably more valuable than ever, debate is not what's wanted. Rather, the wish is for our hopes to be confirmed - the reassurance that our preferences may be more than that alone. As a writer, the pressures to conform, to withhold all but the positive, are tangible - and intimidating. If you doubt me, take a look at the comments meted out to Matthew Pariss by the usually genteel readers of the Times.  Never in my writing career have I felt so stymied by the zeitgeist.

The week before last, two of my neighbours were fined for driving a mile to walk their dog – their trip considered by the police as 'unnecessary travel'. Evidently, the officers were embarrassed to issue the ticket, and no doubt did so under instruction. In the scheme of things, it's a peripheral incident - my neighbours have probably shrugged it off - and yet it leaves me with a lingering unease.

For have we really come to this? 

What became of the 'exercise of discretion' that's so essential to a sense of proportion?  Are we – even in these extraordinary times - comfortable that our law enforcement officers should lie in wait for a middle-aged couple on a midweek afternoon?  Are our reasonable concerns in danger of morphing into a public hysteria that fuels - and justifies –potentially more sinister measures? 

Already, I’m concerned about the paragraphs above.

Do they read as a rail against a lockdown that must be vastly more tolerable for those of us living in rural areas?  Should I perhaps add that we’re clearly in uncharted waters?  And acknowledge that all of us – police officers included - need some leeway to account for the lack of maps? 

The paragraphs are actually lifted from my original draft; their relevance now is only by way of illustration.  It's not so much their logic or even their message that concerns me – but that any comment now risks misinterpretation; that within days – hours even – it will look out of place, jar with the public mood; appear as an ill-timed and ill-advised utterance that was best left unsaid.

My old painting tutor used frequently to paraphrase Cezanne – if you’re stuck, then paint the stove.  His point was that despite our creative blocks we must maintain the habits of practice; and that in this regard, the ‘process’ is as important as the ‘subject’. For many writers, commonplace books are the way through. Julia Cameron, the author of the best-selling The Artists Way recommends ‘morning pages’ - a daily routine of thirty minutes non-stop, pen must not leave the page, quasi-stream-of- consciousness journaling… The author Haruki Murakami, on the other hand, claims that he runs an hour every day to be fit enough to write.

There are some, of course, revelling in the angst – from the ‘pour it all out’ brigade, to those keyboard warriors, who having feasted on Brexit seem never replete. And – I say this with real sadness – too many voices from the environmental lobby, smug in a sort of ‘we told you so – phooey to the airlines – let’s all plant veggies’ zealotry. 

But – dare I say it – few of these are writers in the true sense, or at least of the type that interests me. What, I wonder, would George Orwell make of our situation – and how would he have approached it? The Road to Wigan Pier has some of the most visceral and yet carefully crafted observations of the last century. Orwell's genius was not so much to debate, as to persuade us that his perceptive reflections are just what we've been thinking.

We have some modern-day equivalents, at least in their thoughts if not quite his eloquence. Yuval Noah Harari is a leading voice of persuasive reason - and at times dissent – as, in spanning different faiths and perspectives, are thinkers such as Richard Dawkins, Justin Welby or the Dalai Lama. Less academic, but just as enquiring, my friend Rory Maclean is a sensitive portrayer of the human side of conflict, crisis and its consequences – his recent Pravda Ha Ha is well worth a read in this lockdown.

I’m hoping this post – now so different from its beginning – will be a sort of catharsis; that it might free me from the head spin that leads to (wrongly and ironically, somewhat ungenerously) calling out fearful farmers and the actions of our under-pressure police  Perhaps, from hereon, I can return to writing about my own square mile – not literally, though I guess I might do that too – which draws its strength more from looking at my past than to the future. 

If, in doing so, I avoid the fray, then it’s not for lack of care or trying.

We all of us – writers included – need to keep calm and carry on.


  1. Great post, mark, I really enjoyed it. Some excellent points made here and you've given me the idea to write non stop for 30 minutes about anything that pops into my head, it's really important to keep the creative juices flowing as they say. I'm also wondering what george Orwell would have made of all this. I'm actually reading 1984 atm with that in mind.

  2. I've been pondering Orwell's 1984 lately and how we're in the biggest social experiment ever. Whilst it may be necessary to have lockdown (and I'm sure this period will fuel academic arguments for decades to come on its necessity and effectiveness), I wonder what the powers that be make of our willingness to obey the guidance given and how that will inform future leadership of this and other countries.

  3. I love the ‘turn’ that this piece takes at its midpoint. A cathartic read (as always). It has sparked me to reflect on what is beneficial to read and write at a time like this.