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
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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times