Undistracting grey skies

Ian McEwan, the English novelist, once recalled his formative years before he decided finally to become a writer.

During his unsettled twentysomething youth in the 1970s, when he and others took a van across Europe to Iran and Afghanistan, he wrote in his diary that “we eat psilocybe [magic] mushrooms, canoe, swim naked in the electric-cold water, take saunas, play volleyball, drink wine and talk about Jimmy Carter and Ezra Pound.”

Some time later, he found he needed something else apart from idle adventure.

On the road I often dreamed of being back under undistracting grey skies, writing fiction. After six months I was desperate to get to work.

As September begins, and those of us in the northern hemisphere can start to say goodbye to the summer, we face into one of the most uncertain seasons in our memories.

There is growing tension between the US and China, while the European Union tries to hold onto its togetherness in the face of rising debt, Britain’s December departure and a powerful (and steadily more power-hungry) onlooker in Russia to the east.

All this comes against the backdrop of at least four major global crises, all of which seem to be coming to a head: the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, the rise of far-right politics everywhere from the US to Brazil to Hungary, and increasing civil unrest in the face of racism.

We may face a winter of trouble and discontent, but perhaps, like Ian McEwan in the 1970s, we can occasionally console ourselves under undistracting grey skies, and turn our gaze within, and get to work.

This is not to ignore what’s around us.

The opposite, in fact: what’s around us demands our attention, but we must choose our response carefully. Do we join in the distracted, distracting clamour, or bravely find focus and decide how we might make less noise and create our best work?