Archive for the 'writing' Category

What am I worth? Or, the joys of the gig economy

Work is what we do by the hour. It begins and ends at a specific time and, if possible, we do it for money… Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify…. Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms – these are labors.

Work is an intended activity that is achieved through the will. A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the ground-work, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labour. Beyond that, labour has its own schedule…

When I speak of a labour, then, I intend to refer to something dictated by the course of a life, rather than by society, something that is often urgent but that nevertheless has its own interior rhythm, something more bound up with feeling, more interior, than work.                                                                                                              The Gift, Lewis Hyde

This week, I don’t feel worth very much. A publication I write for has just changed its terms, requiring that I sign over to them all copyright on my stories, forever. In return I get a flat fee which I don’t want to start working out how much it is per hour, because it would be way way lower than the minimum wage in my country. Not to even start factoring in my expenses to get the stories. Or the fact that the latest story I offered them came from a war zone.

What else do I get? I get to write. I get to work with a pretty good and not annoying editor. I get published in a respected publication; I get ‘exposure’, that double-edged thing. People read a story which I think is important. Maybe as a result someone or something changes for the better. Yeah, right…

So do I work, do I write this latest story from a war zone, under those terms? I tried to argue. The editor was sympathetic but – could do nothing. Either you agree to those terms, or – goodbye. And we won’t particularly miss you.

I choose to write, and to try to sell what I write as a freelance journalist. I both love it and hate it. I choose all my subjects myself, only writing about things that interest me or that I think are important. No one sent me to the war zone for this latest story, or forced or persuaded or induced me to spend several days there, with shelling every night, and one moment when I was running for what felt like my life. Some unbelievably lucky circumstances and wonderful people in my life mean I can afford (for the moment) to do this. I’m so much more fortunate than an Uber driver or parcel deliverer or most of the workers of the gig economy struggling to make ends meet while top managers and shareholders are paid more than they could ever, ever need or want. Put like that, can I really complain if a publication wants to pay a small fee in return for total ownership of work I wanted to do?

I could compromise by offering a less good story, with the best bits reserved for the future when I might be able to sell them elsewhere, under better terms. But I don’t want to deliberately write something second rate. Become someone whose writing is second rate. I want this story to be not work but labour, in Lewis Hyde’s sense quoted above. I want the lives of the people there who talked to me, and the risks I took to meet them, to be worth the best I can offer.

After all, even if the rights belong in perpetuity to someone else, the piece will still have my name on it, also (presumably) in perpetuity.

The gig economy works by assuming no one is worth anything, and drives people to indeed do work that is worth less. In that atmosphere, it’s difficult to hold on to a sense of self worth. But some thing have no price. Things like the lives of people in that war zone. Collateral damage, cannon and propaganda fodder – lives that are worth nothing and that are worth everything. A seventeen year old girl dreaming of being a film maker, shooting videos in the cemetery where new graves are dug daily. A woman painting new signs for new war exhibits in a bombed museum. A grandmother planting tulip bulbs to come up next year, carefully digging round unexploded shells shaped like flowers.

No one pays them what these labours are worth. These things have no value in the gig economy. They are labours of love.

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Writing in a war zone – books used to block up windows broken by shelling

On Alexander Litvinenko

This is from my novel Petrushka set in London in 1907 – about, among other things, Russian secret services operating in Britain, and a relationship between a double agent and his handler. I started writing it in about 2008; it’s based largely on historical events at the turn of the 20th century.

I think I’m posting this particular extract because this strange sad detail jumped out at me from this account of Litvinenko’s death:  that his MI6 handler apparently had no idea he was even in hospital with poisoning.

(For Okhrana read FSB, for Special Branch read MI6… you get the gist.)

“…I knew what would happen to Neschastny – to Kyril Voronin.”

Gideon wanted to hold Jeannie’s hand, but he hadn’t had a chance to wash his own, and the last person he’d touched had been a lonely megalomaniac wearing most of his guts on his outside. “When the Okhrana put me on to him last year, yes maybe I thought I’d be doing my bit to protect innocent bystanders from bombs… But I know the Okhrana’s reputation. It wasn’t information they wanted anymore from him. What they wanted was trust.”

By then agent Neschastny had become a liability, likely to break down and confess all. The Okhrana did not want him, and neither did Special Branch once it became clear he had nothing useful to tell about his comrades or his masters. “They just needed him to feel he was still important, still protected – and that was my job. To become his friend.”

Because that was what Gideon Thwaite did. Even when he’d been a regular copper, he hadn’t just moved on vagrants and fished out suicides, had he; he’d made friends with them first. Yorkshireman Thwaite, the maverick joke at Special Branch with his peculiar relationships with riffraff and revolutionists; the even-tempered eccentric no one could help but like.

“And did he?”

“Did he what?”

“Become your friend.”

That was his Jeannie: straight to the point. What was the last thing he had ever said to Neschastny? He had already given the order by then, to call off his men who shadowed the Russian day and night. The Okhrana had made no enquiry about their agent for weeks; the commissioner had blinked his habitual blind eye long enough to ask a pointed question about Thwaite’s interesting assignment of manpower. Thwaite had already known when he had said, mostly reluctantly, “It’s a dangerous game you’re playing. Don’t get killed, will you.”

“I won’t.” Neschastny had smiled a crooked smile. “I still have one thing left to live for.”

And the man had lied, because he was an informer and what informers do is lie; days later he had got himself killed by a Russian state assassin on British soil in scandalously public fashion.

And did he become your friend?

Gideon stared at his hands. “Yes, he did.”

“Poor him.”

“Yes.”

Other people’s lives

My plea for empathy, over on ABBA today

Photos retrieved by rescue workers from a residential building destroyed by shelling  in Nikolaevka, East Ukraine. Almost two months later, no one has collected them from the grass outside

Photos retrieved by rescue workers from a residential building destroyed by shelling in Nikolaevka, East Ukraine. Almost two months later, no one has collected them from the grass outside

 

Geopolitics and fairytales

A profile here on ozy.com about my novel Dream Land, Crimean Tatars, fairytales, and why I can’t write fiction about Ukraine now.

“More out of books than out of real life”

This quote, from Russian Menshevik Lydia Dan, is one of the epigraphs to my work in progress (one of them), a novel about Russian and Ukrainian revolutionaries.

Lydia Dan, a nice girl from a nice upper middle class family of Russian Jewish intellectuals, ended up touring Moscow factories agitating for workers rights among people she had barely a common language with, staying the night with prostitutes to avoid being picked up by the secret police, marrying not just one but two revolutionaries, losing her child, choosing the wrong side (Trotsky’s Mensheviks over Lenin’s Bolsheviks), and living long enough to see a revolution she dedicated her life to, turn distinctly sour and bitter.

“As people we were much more out of books than out of real life,” Dan says, in an extended interview with Leopold Haimson published in The Making of Three Russian Revolutionaries. She means that in her young days, she and her fellow idealists who sat up or walked the streets all night discussing the revolution to come, had seen nothing of ‘real life’. They got their world view from reading Marx and Chernyshevsky and Gorky; the first time Dan actually met a real-life prostitute all she could think about were scenes she had read in Maupassant. They were so busy theorizing about the revolution, and inhabiting its weird, underground, anti-social existence of ideas, that they did not know how to hold down a job, pay a bill, mend a coat, look after a baby…

For me, writing about such people a century later, the quote has a second meaning. Dan and her fellow revolutionaries seem to me like characters out of books: utterly recognisable in their loves and hates and idiocies and heroics, but larger than life, more vivid and interesting, coming from a complete and absorbing world that exists safely between the pages. In other words, fictional.

These last few months in Ukraine, I’ve met the contemporary reincarnation of Dan and her fellow revolutionaries. They are here in all their guises: the ones who made bombs and picked up guns, the ones who wrote heartfelt tracts or disseminated poisonously attractive lies, the ones who looked after the poor and the dispossessed, the ones who spied and betrayed, the ones who were ready to die for ‘the people’ and the ones who killed, robbed and tortured people in the name of making a profit.

Again and again, I keep coming across characters who are straight from 1917.

It’s all amazing, amazing material for my novel, of course. But I realise that maybe I am more like Dan than I thought. My ideas for that novel came more out of reading, than from experience: I thought those revolutionaries were safely between the pages. It is terrifying to realise that the people who are now tearing a country I love to pieces, or trying desperately to hold it together, are in fact, much more out of real life than out of books.

This piece also appears on ABBA today

A letter to Morozko

In a shabby, tree-shaded playground on the outskirts of Simferopol, Crimea, two three-year-old boys are playing on a seesaw.

“Ukraine!” shouts Sayid, as his side of the see-saw goes up.

“Russia!” shouts Sergey, as Sayid comes down and Sergey’s side goes up.

“Ukraine!”

“Russia!”

It’s a cute scene, and the mums in the playground are laughing. The two boys live in the same block of flats, and have known each other since they were born. For them, these names of countries are just another game, like the different-coloured flags they’ve both waved sitting on their dads’ shoulders at opposing demonstrations; like the plastic guns they point at each other.

But when Sayid shouts “Ukraine!” and “Down with Putin!” on the bus into town, his mum hushes him up hurriedly, because who knows how people will react, in this town that used to be part of Ukraine two months ago until armed men appeared everywhere and it apparently became part of Russia. She doesn’t want to expose her son to hostile attention. And whatever she thinks about current events, she doesn’t want to teach her child to hate.

Read the rest of this post here on ABBA today

‘Literature truly nourishes the hungry’

Last year wasn’t a very great writing year for me. Nor a great reading year either.

I think I lost faith in literature. I started to wonder what was the point of putting all these words down on paper or a screen, sending them out into the world while the world seemed in so many ways to be falling apart. And if I couldn’t see the point of writing myself, why would I want to read other people’s words? Or, if I didn’t want to read other people, why would I bother to write myself?

I didn’t write, so I didn’t read. I didn’t read, so I didn’t write. The world continued to fall apart regardless.

For Christmas I got Burying the Typewriter, by Carmen Bugan, from someone who didn’t realise I’d pretty much given up reading.

In this memoir of Ceausescu’s Romania, Bugan’s father bought two typewriters. One stayed on the living room table, and 12-year-old Carmen wrote poems on it. The other was a secret typewriter. Carmen’s parents dug it up and typed anti-Ceausescu protest leaflets on it all night. Every morning, they buried it again in the back garden.

Ion Bugan went to prison for five years because of that secret typewriter and the words he wrote on it. The rest of the family was starved, ostracised, spied on and relentlessly persecuted by the secret police. The only teacher who dared show Carmen any kindness at school was her literature teacher, Lucia, who secretly gave her salami sandwiches.

Carmen writes:

 ‘With time, she [Lucia] will become the reason I believe that literature truly nourishes the hungry. She will become the reason I love morphology and syntax, and she will suffer with me through my family’s nightmares and through my intense love of poetry, which often makes me confuse the worlds of reality and imagination. I will never, for the rest of my life, know or love a teacher more.’

While I was reading these words, the British press was full of words about Romanians – words like job stealers, benefits scroungers. I wonder what Carmen Bugan, who knows what it is to starve, who has this astonishing faith in literature, thinks about those words; the power they have.

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I’m back to writing again. And to reading. I felt humbled by Burying the Typewriter. And stupid too, to have doubted the relevance of literature. Literature can be a salami sandwich when you’re starving. It can be a prison sentence. The difference between a closed door and an open one, into another country,  to a better life.

This post also appears on ABBA today.


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A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland


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