A 100 hours of solitude

An epic writing challenge in aid of promoting access to writing for everyone.

From midnight tonight until 4am on Saturday morning, I will be writing. That’s 100 hours straight, with as little sleep as possible. Wikipedia tells me that it’s possible to go 11 days without sleep – and without coffee – but I’m not approaching this as a sleep-deprivation challenge. I want to write. And I want to raise money.

In return for donations to the Arvon Foundation, I’ll write whatever you ask me to. There’s no price list – just make me an offer and suggest a theme/form. Before the clock has started ticking, I already have around 20 hours of writing lined up but I’m hoping that the requests will continue to come in and will keep me busy all the way through to the weekend.

I’ll be conducting this bizarre experiment in complete isolation at Lumb Bank, the former home of Ted Hughes which is now one of Arvon’s residential writing centres. The whole thing will be broadcast live on webcam at 100Hours.tv, where you’ll also see every keystroke I make on-screen, as I type, so you can watch your requested piece of work being written, edited, deleted and rewritten as it happens.

Everything I write this week will be released under a Creative Commons Zero licence, which means it’s completely copyright-free. You can copy and republish anything you want and you won’t even need to mention my name. So I’m really, really hoping I don’t come up with a million-dollar idea before Saturday.

But maybe I will. I’m curious to know what my brain will come up with given a cocktail of random writing prompts, a lack of sleep, several days of solitude and an audience watching my every word. It could produce genius. More likely it will produce works of variable (and degenerating) quality, descending into complete gibberish unfiltered by my conscious mind. Which should be entertaining for everyone.

And yet I suspect that the majority of people aren’t going to be so interested in what I write. For them, I expect it will turn into an exercise in writer-baiting. I believe this because Alex Heeton and Riccardo Cambiassi, the web developers who built the 100Hours.tv site free of charge, are now working on a web-enabled klaxon that will blast me whenever someone makes a donation over £50. Thanks, guys.

Obviously, this experience won’t be very comfortable for me, but I’m excited to find out how I react to these conditions. Sleep deprivation is said to cause mood swings, short temperedness and a loss of concentration – so far so routine – but longer periods go on to cause delusional behaviour, paranoia and hallucinations, which sound very interesting indeed. None of this will do any long-term damage, by the way, so don’t feel bad about sounding that klaxon and inflicting a bit more discomfort.

Because anything that makes the site more popular and encourages people to give more money is great. When I was a rather solitary teenager looking for a creative outlet, Arvon’s courses always stood out as a luxurious – and for me, unreachable – opportunity. Their residential courses were held in distant rural venues and taught by writers whose work I devoured and whose company I could only dream of. Much later in life, I had the chance to attend a course for the first time, as a tutor, and I saw just how formative a week at Arvon can be for writers of all ages. Arvon is already doing what it can to open up their courses to schools and community groups, but they need funding to get even more young people involved – and that’s why I’m willing to go temporarily doolally on webcam this Christmas. 

So keep me busy. Go to 100Hours.tv and make a request and a donation. Commission some words as a Christmas gift. You don’t want me getting bored and nodding off now, do you?

 

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The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt