An illustration depicting imprisoned writers
© James Ferguson

On Saturday morning my family and I took a train to the “No Dash For Gas” camp in Balcombe. Not until she read the departures board did my Bulgarian partner realise we weren’t protesting Balkan fracking, but fracking in West Sussex. (Would Gladstone have been more of a statesman or less, I wonder, had he concerned himself with the Balcombe Question?)

I have been to many a protest camp but this one had by far the best vibe and was the best organised. A week ago this was an empty field. Now, there were standpipes, field kitchens and compost loos. All workshop tents and marquees had wheelchair access, and, much to the delight of my daughter, there was a kids’ play area with sandpit, paddling pool and face-painting.

Of all the infrastructure, it’s the running water that most amazes me. Here you are in a field, and yet you turn the tap and there it is. Fresh, drinkable water. This miracle never seemed to me more fragile than now, because it can take a cool eight million gallons of water to fracture a single shale gas well. I’m no scientist but I worry that those kind of volumes could suck the South Downs aquifer dry. Thus, to offer the UK shale gas company Cuadrilla, and the Department of Energy and Climate Change a face-saving way out of their hydraulic fracturing impasse, may I propose an alternative devised by John Maynard Keynes: “If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them in disused coalmines, which are then filled to the surface with town rubbish, and to leave it to private enterprise …to dig up the notes again …capital wealth would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is.”

For all the Mad Hatter playfulness of Keynes’s idea, it has the advantage of not reducing the whole of Sussex tap water to a standpipe at the end of the street.

Last Sunday, I went up to Edinburgh for the Book Festival. I was meant to be doing two events but pulled out of one of them. As well as talking about my swashbuckler The Trade Secret, this other event was organised by Amnesty International in conjunction with Scottish PEN and went by the name Imprisoned Writers. “The event,” they said, “is purely a chance for persecuted authors’ work to be heard.”

What a beautiful and powerful idea. You read from the words of writers whose writing has landed them in jail. You use your time in the spotlight with a microphone on behalf of someone in darkness and silence. I was very excited, full of eager anticipation and not a few doubts and fears. What nation would the dissident be from? What if I loved her politics but deplored her poetry? Or, conversely, what if I loved his story about water buffalo but detested the patriarchal character of his banned political party? What if it turned out that the water buffalo was a symbol of, say, a racially pure nation? Could I ask for someone else? Was that on? Above all, I was worried I might not make a good fist of pronouncing, say, a Tamil or Kazakh prisoner’s name, let alone a Tagalog or Khoisan author. As it turned out, the writer’s name wasn’t at all tricky to pronounce. It was Tony Parsons.

My mind reeled. How come no one told me that one of our foremost polemicists was languishing in a foreign jail? Who’s holding him? Why was he arrested?

Nightmare scenarios crowded one upon the other. Perhaps Mali’s new chief of police was a failed musician whose Womad performance Tony Parsons mercilessly slagged off in the NME. Frogmarched off an aeroplane at Timbuktu, the former rock journalist was maybe driven to a disused barracks and forced to listen to a live recording of Womad 1982, with the police chief standing over him all the while, and saying: “Listen to that, Mr Parsons! Would you still say that those cheering crowds sound as if they are listening to Fela Kuti and the Wurzels fighting over a zither in a mineshaft? When I apply these electrodes to the soles of your feet that’s exactly what you will sound like! Ahahahaha!!”

I phoned the Mali embassy, but they said they weren’t holding him. The receptionist said she’d enjoyed Man and Boy, however, and was halfway through the new one.

The Russians? Hmm. Yes. The more I thought about this, the more the Kremlin’s fingerprints were all over the affair. Maybe poor old Tone was captured in a Grozny bunker beside an illegal Chechen printing press, still tapping away at the keyboard as the FSB knocked down the door. Scrolling down the PDF, however, I found that the piece was written not for any Chechen samizdat but for the Daily Mirror.

It was an excellent anti-censorship polemic, but Tony Parsons is not an Imprisoned Writer, and I’m sure he’d be the first to say so himself. I therefore asked Amnesty and Scottish PEN to send me, at their soonest convenience, the writings of an honest-to-goodness political prisoner, pleading with them that failure to do so would leave their event not so much a voice for the voiceless as a voice for multi-platform digital media formats.

Having heard my plea, they sent me something else to read aloud. The writer’s name is Molly Crabapple. She is a New York-based artist, whose work has appeared on CNN and in Vice and the Paris Review. Now, all due respect to Ms Crabapple (whose work has focused on Bradley Manning and Gitmo) but her selection seems rather to prove Noam Chomsky’s point that free speech is a commodity of which the rich have a lot and the poor very little or none. And thanks to the actions of Scottish PEN and Amnesty International that little is even less than it was.

Robert Newman’s ‘New Theory of Evolution’ UK tour starts September 12. His latest novel, ‘The Trade Secret’, is out now (Cargo)


Letter in response to this article:

Field was not ‘empty’ – and a farmer supplied the water / From Mr Nick Cowley

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