John Lanchester’s “The Wall”; part dystopian warning, part contemporary allegory.

(Writing about a dystopian novel seems apt this week – the week in which we are as far in the future from the year 1984 as the year 1984 was when the novel 1984 was first published.)

Earlier this month I wrote a short story based on the idea of inter-generational conflict in the near future. The young (not entirely unreasonably) blaming the old for Brexit, climate change and rising taxes and enforced longer working lives to pay for spiralling social care and pension costs. In amidst the growing division and sporadic outbreaks of violence, a group of ageing young-at-hearts take refuge in nostalgia for the music and style of their younger days.

The day after I finished it, I turned on a Radio 4 panel discussion and heard John Lanchester, an author of four previous novels (one of which a friend gave me as a gift not long ago), and three works of non-fiction (including the intriguing sounding Whoops!; Why everyone owes everyone and no one can pay, about the global financial crisis), and is a contributing editor to The London Review of Books. He was talking about his new novel The Wall (Faber & Faber), published last week. the wall

On one level, The Wall is a dystopian novel. Set in some indeterminate but not-too-distant future, climate change – The Change – as opposed to the normal dystopian device of nuclear apocalypse, has eradicated the beaches and coastlines of Britain and the world. Refugees risk everything to flee the drought and famine stricken super-heated South. The answer – hello Donald – is to build a wall around Britain, to keep the rising tides and desperate refugees, The Others, at bay.

The Wall is guarded by The Defenders, young people serving two years mandatory national service. They all despise their parents’ generation, and family life seems to have broken down. In the face of a falling birth rate and the need to produce the next generation of Defenders, those young people who actually want to bring kids into the world are designated Breeders and bribed with certain privileges.

The protagonist is Kavanagh. He doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life but for the next two years his life isn’t his own anyway. It belongs to The Defenders and The Wall, and the task of keeping out The Others.

A lot of the first section of the book is taken up with two things – cold and boredom. “It’s cold on The Wall” is the opening and closing sentence of the novel. One of Lanchester’s great skills in this new work is to bring poetry to his in-depth study of the various types of cold, damp and darkness Kavanagh and his fellow Defenders have to endure on their 12-hour postings as sentries and look-outs on The Wall. Lanchester seemingly has as many ways of bringing that cold to life here as Eskimos reputedly have words for snow. Another great skill is to write about mind-numbing boredom and routine without being boring.

So, yes on one level The Wall is a contemporary dystopian fantasy. But the key themes – climate change, refugee crisis, intolerance, closing borders to outsiders – are the stuff of our every day headlines and rows on Twitter. This is not a galaxy far far away; this is, allegorically, the future just around the corner.

As Philip Pulman sums up on the back-cover blurb, The Wall is both part dystopian future warning and part (poetically written) allegory for the realities of today. Definitely my top January read.


What studying creative writing can teach you about empathy and the opposite of you

One of the simple but effective characterisation exercises we do on my creative writing MA is to write down three unambiguous truths about yourself – and then write down the opposite. So an older dad of five who likes hillwalking, reading and solitude becomes a young, single guy about town who haunts bars and night clubs. Of course, it’s not that simple, that’s only the start. But it’s your opener to think yourself inside a character that is outside your ambit and experience. They say most writers write about what you know, and many of my characters are middle aged or older guys worrying about mortality and where the world is going, and where the hell do the kids get all those cuss words from. But through this simple exercise, you break out of your own experience and try to think yourself into a previously alien character. A very much un-you.

What are there deep dark desires? What motivates them? What do they think and feel? What do they look like, dress like, where do they live? What items would they carry around in their bag or brief case? Do they have a lucky charm and what would it be?

A similar exercise is to pick out a picture in a newspaper or magazine, someone who doesn’t look or dress like you or even be the same sex, race or similar age, and think about all those questions above.

Another extension is to pick a second or even third photograph of different looking characters and place them in the same tube carriage as the character in your first photograph, the un-you, and think about what his/her reaction would be, what they think about these other characters.

This way you start to get inside the head of a character that is very different from you, if not your polar opposite. It’s liberating. It’s also a good way of building empathy for a character who at the start of the exercise is simply the inverse of key characteristics of yourself. In the novel I am working on right now I have characters ranging from Ivory Tower academic snobs to drug dealers and members of a violent Neo-Nazi group. I can say with confidence I have never been any of those things nor know people who are. But to avoid one dimensional stereotyping you have to go beyond just desk research. You have to think inside their heads, consider their motivations, fears, desires, circumstances. Uncomfortable, challenging, but important all the same. Simple exercises in characterisation like those given to creative writing students are a great way to start.

It also made me think about, inevitably, Brexit and its ongoing repercussions. By that I don’t mean the fate of Theresa May, her Government, Jeremy Corbyn etc. I mean the fault lines exposed and seemingly deepening in our country; a country more divided in terms of generations, location, internationalist vs nationalist outlook, university education or no, etc than I have ever known. And thanks in part to social media, more vocal, rude and aggressive in the various tribes’ attitudes to each other than ever before.

Perhaps we should get some of those driven pro and anti Brexit folks camping out on College Green or abusing each other online into a room with a creative writing tutor and get them to think themselves into their diametrically opposite characters. It may not change their minds on the fundamentals of Brexit, but it may open their minds to the motivations, feelings and experiences of very different characters to their own. It might even build some empathy, something in short supply in public life right now.

No More Heroes

I’ve been playing the CD of David Bowie’s legendary Glastonbury 2000 set almost back to back in my car since it was released before Christmas. It’s a fabulous jukebox of Bowie’s best-known creative output up to the end of the last century. But one of my favourite songs of his is omitted from this and all Bowie compilations I’ve come across: Somebody Up There Likes Me from the wrongly critically under-acclaimed Young Americans album of 1975.

Bowie had long been fascinated by Nietzcheian supermen, dictators, Big Brothers from early in his song-writing career but by the mid-seventies two things had happened. Firstly, many dictators and unsavoury political bogeymen – Nixon, Mao, Franco, the Greek Junta – were all consigned to history between 1974 and 1976. And secondly, Bowie became unstuck as a result of extreme cocaine induced psychosis.

In his notorious NME interview with Anthony O’Grady in August 1975, after the release of Young Americans and headlined “Watch out mate, Hitler’s on his way back”, Bowie banged on about America losing its way and “the best thing that can happen is for an extreme right Government to come. It’ll do something positive at least to cause commotion in people and they’ll either accept the dictatorship or get rid of it”. (In his intro O’Grady invoked the image of a coke-addled Bowie “huddled in a room drawing pentangles, burning candles and chanting spells”.)

Forty years later America got Donald Trump. He might have predicted Ronald Reagan’s (literally, an actor and savage son of the TV tube) rise a few years later but even in his wildest, nose candy driven, pentangleing flights of fancy I doubt he could have predicted Trump.

Of course, Bowie fortunately took himself off to Berlin, the epicentre of destructive totalitarianism, to recover and produce his trio of great creative albums Low, Heroes and The Lodger. It WAS “the side effects of the cocaine”; “Oh baby, just you shut your mouth.” But it was a tough time to be a young, left-wing Bowie fan.

In a 2010 reflection on the infamous interview, The Quietus wrote of “Bowie’s ill-advised and offensive flirtation with Nazism” being partly the result of “cocaine psychosis and extreme misjudgement”, but also “wilfully misjudged and exaggerated by the press at the time”. Photos of him waving at fans were preposterously presented as him giving Hitler-style salutes and proof that the coked-up Thin White Duke was indeed a neo-Nazi.

Back to Somebody Up There Likes Me. Far from advocating a new political messiah, Bowie takes the old Superman motif and, post-Watergate, reincarnates it as a media image politician, a TV age personality; the savage son of the TV tube. Someone who just reflects what people think (opinion polls, focus groups anyone) and serves it right back to them with a winning smile: Hugging all the babies, kissing all the ladies, knowing all you think about through writing on the wall.

God knows what he would have thought back in the 70’s had he known about Twitter and social media, Trump, Brexit, antisemitism in Labour, Dominic Cummings, Cambridge Analytica, the tragic and horrific murder of Jo Cox et al.

I’ve always heard the song more as a warning than praise for a new dictator. Others interpret it (He’s so divine, his soul shines) differently. But when was Bowie ever clear and unambiguous? Not for nothing was the final track on his final album, released two days before he died, called I Can’t Give Everything Away. 

Listening to the song in today’s context, we’ve had ideologues (Thatcher) and sons of the TV tube (Blair). Now we’ve got the most woefully lacklustre, shambolic, pointless set of political leaders in Westminster for generations. As a politically concerned citizen and a life-long Labour voter, a former Labour spokesman and until recently a thirty-year plus veteran member, I want someone to come along and provide us with some leadership, and I can’t see it happening or where it is going to come from. But for sure it needs to be more than someone who’s just a baby hugger, an image, a smile that looks good on the telly and someone who just plays back to us what we already think.


PS If you haven’t seen Channel 4’s Brexit, An Uncivil War, do watch it on catch-up. Imperfect drama yes, but fascinating and bleakly hilarious.

PPS Young Americans may have been unloved at the time but now comes high in those ‘top five hundred albums of all time’ listings and is constantly worthy of reappraisal.

PPPS Talking of my own former party and it’s woeful, divided, ‘nasty party’, poll dragging state, Yvette Cooper is far from the archetypal modern, image-driven, baby kissing telly star but boy does she have substance. For all Corbyn trying to airbrush her, Stalin-like, from his comments on Westminster events this week.

On Orwell, wilderness and Britain’s wildest gin.

Just because I don’t have a god doesn’t mean I can’t do pilgrimages.

I make them to my old neighbourhood in Salford, Lancashire. I did one to be photographed in the real Coronation Street in front of the Salford Lads Club for a Manchester photography exhibition. I spent a whole hot afternoon walking around Berlin to track down the flat Bowie lived in with Iggy Pop in the Turkish Quarter. I made one recently, by plane, car, ferry and foot, to the Isle of Jura in the South Hebrides to find the house George Orwell lived in while writing 1984.

I’ve wanted to visit Jura for over twenty years, but children, intensive workload and other stuff got in the way. The more I read about Jura – just two hundred full-time residents, one road (which only runs half way round the island), one hotel, one shop, a whisky distillery, a couple of mountains, six thousand red deer and an unspecified number of feral goats – the more I wanted to visit what must be one of our last remaining wildernesses in the UK.

Then I read about Orwell’s time there. He has been one of my literary heroes since my early teens and just recently we covered his realist non-fiction (Homage to Catalonia, Down and Out in London and Paris) on my creative writing Masters degree. The idea of seeing the wildly remote house that he wrote one of my all-time favourite novels in, on the wild and remote island I had longed to visit, was irresistible.

The prompt to come was a conversation with my old boss, the founder of my former PR agency Shandwick, the Tory peer Lord (Peter) Chadlington, whose advice I sought when I announced my early retirement. He told me that he had taken himself off to a remote part of Scotland to think about the rest of his life.

The rest of my life was already in motion. I had three young boys at home I wanted to raise as a full-time dad and help them on their way in the world, and my ambition to write had led me to sign up for my two-year part-time MA at Winchester University. But I liked the idea anyway. It was almost a year later that I actually got to finish working, business travelling and commuting, CEO retirements tending to be like Jane Austen novel engagements; going on far too long while you wait to start your next chapter and your successors wait to get the keys to your corner office.

So, in early June I left the family at home – the kids would have hated the dodgy WiFi and unlike me my wife is no fan of lonely wildernesses – and flew to Glasgow. Then I drove two and a half hours past Loch Lomond, Loch Fyne and Inverary to the two hour CalMac ferry crossing of the Mull of Kyntire to Islay. Finally, a little ferry on to Jura.


I stayed at the only hotel, The Jura Hotel (great food, locally sourced, and a fantastic view over the sea to The Little Islands and the self-explanatory Goat Island) where my snug little room overlooked the Jura Whiskey Distillery. Jura’s one “main” road, a single track frequently potholed affair that skirts around to south of the island and up to the north east. It runs out four miles before Barnhill, the isolated and basic farmhouse where Orwell lived in the late nineteen forties for much of the last few years of his life.


Compared to the sun baking Sussex, the weather forecast looked grim for my few days on the island and the morning of my first full day carried warnings of hard winds and rainstorms. But when I set off for my trek up the north east of the island the sky and sea turned blue.

A keen single malt drinker, I was already familiar with and a fan of Jura Whiskey. But lately I had got into small batch gin in a big way, even experimenting with my own with botanicals from the South Downs and nearby beaches where I live. I had read about Lussa Gin, made by three local women (no Hackney bearded hipsters thanks very much) in a remote farm outhouse in Ardlussa on the road to Barnhill. Orwell, wilderness, walking and a new gin distillery to check out. Sounded like my perfect day. And it was.

So I drove nineteen miles of single track, pot-holey road past stunning views of the water over to the mainland on one side and the prosaically named Paps of Jura mountains on the other. I crossed the fast-flowing Lussa River where the gin distillery draws its spring water from and met Claire Fletcher, one of the three intrepid women behind Lussa Gin. She showed me the gleaming little copper stills where the magic is worked, including “Jim” the small original still, in a room half the size of my living room but where they produced 10,000 bottles last year.


The botanicals are all sourced locally, either from the wild (lemon thyme, lemon balm, sea lettuce, juniper berries from the West Coast that they have to fight the deer for) or grown in their gardens. Maybe it was the connection of seeing the setting in which it is made, where the botanicals are foraged, smelling them picked and ready to go, but my first taste made me think it the subtle essence of this wild and beautiful island in a glass.


Claire Fletcher, who along with Georgina Kitching and Alicia MacInnes are the intrepid women behind the award-winning Lussa Gin. Claire was a music producer who met her husband when she visited the island in the 90’s to help make a video of the KLF Foundation and their infamous ‘burn a million quid’ stunt – which for some reason they chose to do in a remote boathouse on Jura. 

A bottle in the trunk, I drove a further three miles of increasingly potholed road until a sign told me the public road had ended and I should abandon my car for what my grandad called Shank’s Pony. Another sign told me that Barnhill was four miles walk further on.


And what a four mile walk. I didn’t see a single human soul in the three hour round trip, just fabulous views of the sea on one side and hills and plains on the other. After an hour or so, a white house appeared far away, below on the right down where the land met the sea: Barnhill. I tried to imagine what Orwell must have felt when he saw the wild beauty and isolation.


Orwell first showed an interest in visiting Jura with his wife as early as 1944. He corresponded with the man who then owned Ardlussa, where the gin is now smithed, and returned to his plans in 1945. They had to be put on hold as his wife needed an operation, a hysterectomy. The next letter to Ardlussa reported that his wife Eileen had tragically died in surgery.

In April 1946 Orwell finally arrived at Ardlussa via the post van after a 24 hour trip (mine took 11 ½ hours) on his own. The next day the people who were to be his next-door neighbours, albeit six tough going miles away, a Mr and Mrs Nelson, took him up to look at Barnhill.

Barnhill was an abandoned farmhouse with the most basic amenities. Orwell, known locally by his real name Eric Blair, set up home with a camp bed, table, a few chairs and a cooking fire. The Nelsons offered to help with food supplies, which were still strictly rationed, but he preferred to look after himself. He planted fruit trees, grew vegetables and took his boat out fishing for food almost every night. The privations that come across so acutely in the novel must have been even more real writing in remote Barnhill than in post-war London.

But, while still grieving Eileen, Orwell was happier there than in London. He wrote, ‘I am anxious to get out of London for my own sake because I am constantly smothered under journalism. I want to write another book which is impossible unless I can get six months quiet…somewhere where I cannot be telephoned to.’ That book, working title The Last Man in Europe, became 1984.

In time he was joined by his adopted son Richard, then aged three, his housekeeper Susan Watson and his sister Avril. He spent most of 1946 there writing 1984. He loved to take the boat out on the sea, writing in one of his letters from Barnhill of ‘the completely uninhabited bays where there is beautiful white sand and clear water with seals swimming’. (Still the case.) It was on one of these trips through the Gulf of Corryvreckan that he got into difficulties in the notorious whirlpool off Jura’s northern coast. The motor was ripped from the boat which overturned. He managed to rescue his little son and, along with his visiting niece and nephew, make it to a little island from where they were picked up hours later by a passing fishing boat.

Orwell returned to Barnhill in 1947, where his long-standing lung problems got worse and he was taken to East Kilbride just outside Glasgow and diagnosed with TB. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, he returned again in 1948 determined to finish the novel. Mrs Nelson recalls hearing him typing in his bedroom above the spartan kitchen, typewriter perched on his knees. By this time he had given up his rented cottage in Hertfordshire and his London flat, intending to make Barnhill his permanent home. It was short lived. 1984 was published in the summer of 1949 and the following January he was dead, aged just 46.




Barnhill, where you can unleash your inner Orwell for £1000 a week. But forget WiFi and Ocado deliveries. 

Barnhill is little changed today from the summers Orwell spent there writing, farming and fishing. You can rent the place for £1000 a week but, as then, it has few mod cons. A generator powers the lights but little else. There’s a gas fridge and coal fired Rayburn for hot water. You need a 4×4 or boat to get there, unless you fancy carrying your luggage all four miles that I trekked in wind and rain. But there’s the wilderness and solitude and seclusion that so inspired Orwell during the last few years of his too short life.

I might just give it a go. IMG_8949