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?

 

Photograph: Getty Images
ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war