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.

mariinka window1

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

 

“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

‘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.

burying-the-typewriter-978144721084901

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.

Home is where the library is

For years, like many people I suppose, visiting my parents has also been revisiting childhood landscapes, dreams, hopes – and books.

In one specific way, these are all the same thing. I grew up in Alan Garner country. From the field above our house you could see Shuttlingsloe, Shining Tor, Mow Cop. These were simultaneously the hills my parents dragged me to for boring walks (boring because I’d much rather have been at home reading books) and perilous places of terror and enchantment where the Morrigan rode and Roman legionaries went native far from home – all inside those same Garner books.

These days I’d rather stomp over the hills than read even a fantastic book. But it’s a tradition that, when visiting my parents, I’ll follow a walk through those semi-mythical landscapes by curling up with the books of my childhood, which my parents have kept in a wonderful library collected over the years. Alongside Alan Garner there’s Diana Wynne Jones, Rosemary Sutcliff, Peter Dickinson, Joan Aiken, Leon Garfield, Susan Cooper, Noel Streatfeild, Elizabeth Goudge, Robert Westall… It is partly a retreat into the voracious reading of childhood, when the world of the book is more real than the real world (Tom and Jan on Mow Cop in Red Shift more immediate and vital than any boring walk there with my parents), partly a salute to these authors who inspired me to start writing myself (when those walks ceased to be boring, as I dreamed up my own stories to fit the landscapes) and partly an investigation as a writer, always learning, always hoping, always marvelling at how the masters manage it.

Now my parents are downsizing (isn’t everybody?). There isn’t room for everything, so I spent last week packing up the children’s library to send off to its new home with my brother, in a different county, far from the landscapes of childhood.

One box packed, ten more to go...

One box packed, ten more to go…

I also sorted through a drawer of my own childhood and adolescent writings. Most of them are awful. I can read them now and identify, paragraph by paragraph, here is Rosemary Sutcliff, here is Diana Wynne Jones, here is Ursula le Guin, Sutcliff again, Dickinson, again Sutcliff…

But in among the styles and stories lifted wholesale from other authors and legends and fairytales and films, the one thing that rings at all true is the landscape. I knew from Garner that stories as deep as myth could be written about an everyday real place. I took Narnia and Dalemark and Camelot and transposed them to the field above our house, to the hills and moors you can see from there. And in the process, I think I started to find myself as a writer.

I moved away from my parents years ago, and I’ve never written about that landscape since. I don’t know if I ever will again; I can’t lay claim to Alderley Edge or Shuttlingsloe the way Alan Garner can; though I grew up with them, the roots go no further back. Yet the roots do run deep. I’ll miss the children’s library; in a way it was what made my parents’ house still home. But the landscape, informed as it is by that library, is even more important to me. Those fields and hills are full not only of the dreams and truths I read in The Moon of Gomrath or Red Shift, but of my own dreams of stories and hopes to be a writer.

This post also appears on ABBA today

What happened to Utopia?

A conversation with a fourteen-year-old reader inspired my post today on ABBA, about the current vogue for YA dystopian fiction, or ‘dyslit’.

We know the world’s going to hell in a handbasket. When its all bad news, bad news, bad news in fact and in fiction, its hard to remember that the future is not a disaster waiting to happen; the future is what we make of it.

Perhaps I will make it my mission to set a new vogue: for dyslit’s inversion, utolit…

Cloud watching

Here’s the word cloud (courtesy of ABCya) for my post on ABBA today.

MyCloudIf you want to find out what all those words add up to, pop over to ABBA for a read. Alternatively, you could aways construct your own text from them…

A plot for Christmas

is what I’m asking for over on ABBA today. Any help much appreciated!

This is fact

I’ve been reading and writing (one novel finished, the next one in the planning stages) about Russian revolutionaries for so long now, I sometimes have difficulty remembering what is fact and what is fiction.

So it’s extraordinary to walk the blind, stuffy corridors of the Trubetskoy Bastion prison in St Petersburg, and peer into cells where all these people who’ve been locked away in my imagination were really incarcerated. Peter Kropotkin, Boris Savinkov, Vera Figner, Lev Trotsky; so where’s Dmitry Suvorov – ? Oh no, idiot, I made him up, didn’t I…

But the lesson I learn from this experience is that the old truism is utterly true: fact really is stranger and more terrible than any fiction.

What else can I make of it, the various incarnations of Russia’s main prison for political offenders in the Petropavlovsky Fortress, from Peter I’s son to the Decembrists to the Narodniki and SRs and Bolsheviks to the enemies of the revolution? It is such a bizarre mixture of inhumanity and repression and bureaucracy and chaos and idiocy and human error.

In Tsarist times the prisoners were isolated in separate cells, banned from communicating with each other or even the guards. They all did communicate though, by tapping out messages (on the beds, the walls, using spoons, cups, buttons) in an alphabet that they all knew. “The struggle for tapping is the direct struggle for existence,” wrote revolutionary Vera Figner.

The prisoners’ alphabet

Punishment in special cells (up to seven days alone in total darkness and cold) was mainly for attempts to communicate with other prisoners or the outside world. For tapping – three days. For writing notes in books – two days. For writing notes in the bible – four days.

The books and bibles came from the prison library. The only occupation permitted prisoners was, incredibly, reading. Didn’t the Tsarist regime realise the dangers of the written word – how else did they think revolutionary ideas spread? Books in the prison library all had to pass the censor. Nevertheless prison officers regularly found ‘morally dangerous’ works there by Gorky, Saltykov-Schedrin, Zola, Engels, Marx’s Capital…

While locked up in his cell the anarchist Kropotkin wrote up his seminal research into the origins of the ice age. Trotsky wrote Results and Prospects, in which he developed his theory of permanent revolution. Prisoners went mad, set themselves alight with gasoline from the lamps, died of TB and typhoid, were sent off to be hanged, to be incarcerated for years in the Shlissenburg fortress, to exile in Siberia where they met up with other revolutionaries and frequently escaped to Europe – Siberia a sort of vastly inefficient get-out clause for the government, a way of solving the problem of dissidents without in fact solving it at all.

After the February 1917 revolution, the cells briefly filled up with Tsarist ministers. The prison bureaucracy began to break down. Following the October revolution, they were joined by provisional government ministers and deputies, by white army officers, cadet mutineers, monarchists… In March 1918 the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police, took over. For three years ‘Enemies of the revolution’ were packed twenty to a cell. There was no prison regime anymore, just whatever brutality the guards wanted to practice. No food, no bedding, no exercise, no books. No rules.

“Opening the window of our flat on Lakhtinsky street in the nights of 1918–1919, we could hear irregular shooting and short bursts of machine gun fire from the direction of the Petropavlovksy fortress”, wrote the academic Dmitry Likhachev. The identities and fates of the 500-600 prisoners during this time are mostly unknown. No one kept records, not like those exhaustive Tsarist lists that form the basis of today’s Bastion museum exhibits. All there is is a handful of names recalled by the few survivors.

The other lesson the Trubetskoy Bastion teaches. That this is the way (must it be?) of tyranny and revolution; in fact, in fiction.

 


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland


%d bloggers like this: