Writing Climate Change (at the Free Word Centre)

writing climate change– reviewed by Catherine Heath –

The Venue – a welcomingly hipster-ish charity

Writing Climate Change was hosted at the Free Word Centre in Clerkenwell, which is a charity promoting literature, literacy and free expression – the only one of its kind. It can be found on a back street, the glow of its welcoming interior beckoning one in out of the cold night. Having previously registered online in advance, the hipster-ish staff give you a reusable ticket, which gains you entry to the event.

The Concept – writing a global warning

The theme of the evening was writing and climate change (as the name suggests), which essentially considers how the global issue of climate change can be translated into personal stories that will appeal to a large audience. Performers hailed from a variety of backgrounds, including youth groups, a published author, a commissioned amateur writer and a competition winner. The breadth of work was certainly diverse, including passages from a published children’s book by Oisin McGann, part of a short story by Sarah Butler and Nick Hunt, a dramatic reading by Sai Murray, Selina Nwulu, Stevie Ronnie and Zena Edwards, and digital poems by Dan Simpson.

What Worked – science as literature

The relationship between science and literature was by far the most interesting aspect of the night, and I particularly enjoyed Steve Ronnie‘s attempt to reveal the cryptic nature of the International Climate Change (ICC) report by turning it into abstract poetry – which wittily resulted in relatively little change to the clarity and meaning of the text to a general reader. He had printed the individual words from the report onto squared of paper, and then shuffled these inside a box. Taking out words at random, he had used the pickings to write his poetry. While it is often pleasing to explore these theoretical issues, my heart was not really moved.

What I’d Like to Hear More of – dire warnings and fantastical futures

I would have liked to see more of the effects of climate change impacting on the experience of the individual, treated with flair and poetry. The performer who succeeded the most at this – perhaps unsurprisingly – was the published author, Oisin. His passage was witty and timely, distilling the huge issue of climate change into a parable told through the medium of science fiction.

He imagined Earth in the far future, encased in a large dome, and the planet’s environment being entirely synthetic. Humans enter simulation pods that recreate the experience of being in nature, but the former natural environment is entirely erased. Some of the humans have the thankless and difficult task of cleaning the dome, which is regularly encrusted with ice due to the harsh conditions of space outside.

It is only by weaving the effects of climate change into believable stories that fiction can be utilised as a persuasive vehicle for change. Indeed, though science fiction is by definition fantasy, one can nevertheless identify with a good character – and, indeed, this genre has always been most suited to predicting dire consequences resulting from the actions (or, inaction) of our present society.

The question that this event was asking was: how can we use creative writing as a vehicle to catalyse social change with regards to the issue of climate change? One answer, possibly, is to promote more stories by Oisin McGann.

What Didn’t Work – a touch disjointed

Ultimately, I feel the performances didn’t entirely come together. Though climate change might be a valid theme around which to coordinate such an event, it is difficult to avoid coming across as sanctimonious, and I think in this case it didn’t really succeed. Also, on the other end of the scale, climate change can become a mere empty vessel to fill with words that reflect the author’s own interests and ego, rather than adequately transformed into something more meaningful.

In Conclusion…

I had never been to a spoken word performance before and it is certainly one which I now intend to repeat. It’s easy to criticise and much harder to execute an event like this, and I certainly applaud the organisers for trying to raise awareness of an important issue. I commend the confidence and grace of the amateur performers for attempting something brave in front of a large crowd.

However, I think that when engaging with poetry and fiction writing the onus must always be on the beauty of the words, and the emotions which are stirred within us, which has the potential to be even more dramatic when read aloud in front of an audience. This kind of event is always hit and miss, and though I was not moved, if the volume of applause was anything to judge by then the audience was thoroughly impressed. I shall certainly be going back to the Free Word Centre again.

The Free Word Centre hosts regular free lectures and other events. All details can be found here.