What is the role of a writer in times of transition and change? How might their work contribute at a turning point in history when the choices we make will so significantly affect the kinds of lives we live tomorrow? Perhaps the answer to these questions is no more than a continuation of the primary duty of any writer – to write as well as possible.
But what if that isn’t enough? What if a writer also wants to illuminate the fault lines of the moment, characterise an injustice or humanise an issue burning within them? Then the challenge becomes more complex and, I’d say, considerably more demanding. To give literary shape to the climate crisis, sexism, racism, inclusivity, yet still make good art. To avoid didacticism or polemic and create a poem or story that carries us effortlessly – through craft, imagination and empathy – into the beating human heart of a matter.
With all this in mind, I was delighted to be asked by the National Centre for Writing and the British Council to showcase 10 UK writers who are asking the questions that will shape our future. They are Martin MacInnes, Hannah Lavery, Elizabeth Jane-Burnett, Laura Bates, Nikita Lalwani, Alys Conran, Raymond Antrobus, Clare Pollard, Adam Weymouth and Garrett Carr.
All the writers on this list have, in a variety of ways, met that challenging criterion with brilliance and verve, in forms that range from travelogues to poems, memoir to young adult fiction. What they share is an ability to see clearly into the connective tissue of their subjects, to create narratives that join the dots, that follow threads of consequence and causality through the fabric of society.
Forster’s “only connect”, then. Well, yes, and maybe that’s another way of describing these writers, as 10 of the most inspirational “literary connectors” at work in the UK. But for me it’s what they do with those connections that marks them out as voices to which we should pay special attention.
In 2016 I wrote a film-poem about the founding of the NHS, To Provide All People. As part of my research, I read Aneurin Bevan’s seminal collection of essays, In Place of Fear – a book that came to mind again as I read the work of these 10 writers. Because that is the other thing the questions they ask offer us: an alternative response to so many of our contemporary fears about the future, from the climate emergency and immigration to motherhood, technology and nationalism. Bevan’s essays also asked a question of his time, one that was perhaps made most manifest in the creation of the NHS: “Who do we want to be?” Ultimately, that is also what the work of these writers is asking now. Who do we want to be? What kind of a humanity do we want our children to inherit? How we answer – as individuals, nations, a species – will shape our future.