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
Getty
Show Hide image

France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

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