Writing about social issues, by Elizabeth Kay

These bottles don't contain fizzy drinks.
 They are full of petrol, which people can buy
in small quantities for their mototr bikes.
Health and safety would have a fit.
 This is a tough one, because things change all the time, and what you write may be out of date by the end of the week. I tend not to put identifiable dates in fiction, nor do I mention specific sums of money. I think living through inflation made me think very hard about that! I tend to say that something would have bought a five bedroom house in Surrey, or cost less than a litre of milk. I have found the best way to write about issues is to set something slightly in the future – or in an invented country that bears a strong resemblance to somewhere else. I was a winner of the South London Writing competition a long time ago with a story that was set at the height of Thatcherism. Those that remember will recall Cardboard City on the South Bank, sheltered by the overhanging walkways, where dozens of homeless congregated. This is an extract from the story, called Retrospective:

"...everyone’s heard of the Tower, but it wasn’t quite what I’d expected. The walls were covered with the most amazing graffiti — words, images, colours, designs, and the huge expanses of floor were filled with little polystyrene structures, all different, all individual, each one four square metres of home. They reminded me of snowflakes — superficially similar, profoundly different, and very, very White.
Fast food outlet. Snakes, rats and egrets.
‘They’re not all white,’ said Florence, ‘take a look at that one.’
The owner had torn up little squares of old magazines, stuck them on to the outside of his computer crate and recreated a sun-lit park. The trunks of the plane trees were dappled with the distinctive yellow of those diphtheria leaflets, and the deep-purple shadows were the unmistakable violet of budget condom packets. It was surprisingly effective, and I stopped to look.
‘There’s a really tremendous one round the corner,’ Florence told me, so we went to see. The householder had managed to present the illusion of a window on the side of his box, with a vase of flowers on the sill and Victorian lace curtains, painstakingly cut from discarded tissue paper. The perspective of the room’s interior was very clever, and I found myself smiling at a piece of representational art for the first time in years."

The Floating Market. The other side of the houses open onto a river.
And that all seems remarkably civilised and hygienic, compared to today's topic. Homelessness was a major issue at the time. In the past I’ve tackled post-menopausal pregnancy, GM crops, and the abuses of the pharmaceutical companies in the third world. These days it’s global warming and plastic, and the evidence I have seen with my own eyes whilst travelling abroad has depressed me so much I can’t summon up the mental reserves to write about them. Yes, I know I’ve contributed to global warming with my plane travel and car use, and I wish I could afford an electric vehicle, or the means to travel by solar-powered boat. I can’t cycle any more due to arthritis, nor can I walk very far at the moment although hopefully that situation won’t last. I do applaud the increasing numbers of places, both here and abroad, that arrange facilities for refilling water bottles. Nevertheless, the rubbish I have seen dumped in Asia sickens me. I have just got back from Cambodia, a very poor country, and it has to be the worst example I have ever seen. Here are some photographs, with explanations of what you are seeing.

A road full of rubbish
I have absolutely no idea how I would write about any of this. And the more I travel throughout Asia, the more despairing I become. The only birds you see are sparrows and pigeons. All the others seem to have been trapped so that they can live in little cages and sing their laments for a more humane world. I have no more immediate plans to travel. Cambodia was also home to the Genocide Museum, The Killing Fields, and the Landmine Museum. Granted, Angkor Wat was the most wonderful temple complex I have ever seen.  A major tourist destination, thanks to Tomb Raider, so cleaner than the rest. But it was full of Chinese tour groups, and Cambodia is in hock to China for billions of dollars. And what have the Chinese gained from this relationship? A few islands they can keep in pristine condition, for Chinese holidaymakers. And they've felled 80% of Cambodia's forests in the last ten years, and sent it off to China. Hardwood. The new gold.

Sihanoukville - the most depressing city I have ever seen.
Note the live electrical cables overhead,
                 which make good swings for the kiddies.

More rubbish, with motorbike (presumably in working order)


Umberto Tosi said…
I share your laments. What can we writers do but write about what we see and hope to move the needles of sanity and social justice in a world being laid waste by rampant greed?

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