50 words for Dawit Isaak


My contribution to the 26:50 project went up earlier this week.

In case you missed the previous posts, Dawit Isaak is an Eritrean-born Swedish citizen imprisoned 3,125 days ago by the Eritrean government for his work as a journalist on the country's first independent newspaper. You can sign a petition for his release here. (And thanks to those who already have.)

I've written more about the background to the fifty words on Free The Blog.

12 square metres and no window


There's been some rare news today about the condition of Dawit Isaak, the imprisoned writer whom I'll be writing about as part of the 26:50 project. (My 50-word contribution should come out in the next few days – see this previous post for more background.)

Dawit is an Eritrean-born Swedish citizen arrested eight years ago in Eritrea for his work as a journalist on the country's first independent newspaper. Since then, he has been held without charge and there have been no reliable reports of his condition. Today's leaked information from a former guard is at least confirmation that he is alive, but there the good news ends.

For the past 3,119 days, Dawit has been held in solitary confinement, handcuffed almost around the clock, in a windowless cell measuring three metres by four metres. The sanitary conditions are grim and the food barely enough to sustain a life. Around 15 of the 35 fellow inmates arrested at the same time as Dawit have already died.

Writing 50 words in this situation feels like striking a match on a dark night in a force-ten gale. But writing two words, your first and second name, on this petition is an effective way to keep the pressure up. You can also use the Free Dawit website to send messages to the Eritrean government.

Sign the petition here

Free Dawit Isaak


I'm soon going to be taking part in 26:50, a collaboration between 26 and International PEN, marking the fiftieth anniversary of PEN's Writers in Prison Committee.

26 has paired fifty of its members with fifty writers whose causes have been championed by International PEN over the years. The idea is to find out as much as you can about your writer and then write (exactly) fifty words as a response.

The results are being posted up daily, in the run up to International PEN's Free The Word festival in April. They make for fascinating reading, not just as pieces in themselves, but as little windows into the much bigger stories that lie behind.

My writer is Dawit Isaak, an Eritrean-born Swedish citizen imprisoned by the Eritrean government for his work as a journalist on the country's first independent newspaper. He has been held without trial for 3,099 days, in prisons notorious for their inhuman conditions and use of torture. His family and friends (he has many) have no way of checking on his well-being.

There's an excellent website where you can find out more about his plight (click on the English language option at the top right of the page). One simple way to help is to sign the petition on the home page, which has over 18,000 signatures, mainly from Sweden. It would be a nice side-effect of this project if some more British names appeared.

I'll write in more detail when my contribution comes out in the next few weeks.

Circle Line: No longer circular


Disappointed to hear the news this morning that London's Circle Line is to lose its defining feature: its circularity (notionally at least). TfL is planning to turn it into a 'tadpole', with a tail added to the existing loop to extend it to Hammersmith. (Making the line look, erm, nothing like a tadpole.) More momentously, there will no longer be a through service running the entire circuit of the track – you'll have to change at Edgware Road if you want to keep going.

There are no doubt good practical reasons for the change (reducing delays, overcrowding etc), but it will remove an important part of London's 'psychogeography'. The idea that there is one line that you could theoretically stay on all day has always held a great fascination for Londoners. Circle Line parties will presumably be no more, and late-night drunks won't be able to snooze for quite as long.

In 2005, the Circle Line was the inspiration for a book by 26 (the writers' organisation of which we're both members). From Here To Here was a great collection in which writers (including the likes of Simon Armitage and Ian Marchant) were each assigned a different station. One of the earliest 'Asbury & Asbury' projects (before we went by that name) was coming up with an exhibition to promote the book. We're still proud of it.


On a miniscule budget of £500, we managed to source a load of picture frames from various car boot sales, along with some gaffer tape and a tin of yellow paint. The result was a version of the Circle Line in which each station morphed into a distinctive story of its own.


Each frame contained an extract from the writer's chapter, interpreted in a variety of graphic, typographic and illustrative styles.

The book started and ended with chapters on King's Cross, so we decided to put them in a split frame at the entrance to the gallery (in the London College of Communications).


Sawing that frame in half and getting the alignment right was hard work.

In fact, the whole thing was hard work. Trekking across London to buy the frames (in the days before we had a car), applying about five coats of paint to each one, designing the canvases, getting glass cut, hiring a van to transport them, drilling the holes in the wall to mount them. For a few weeks, our house turned into a surreal mini-Circle-Line of its own, with frames snaking their way along the hall and up the stairs. Still remember tiptoeing past them, trying not to get any stray specks of dust on the final coat of gloss paint.

Our only regret is that we spent so much energy getting the thing done, that we didn't give enough thought to documenting it. Most of the pictures are taken on a small compact camera – bit crazy in retrospect. 

That said, we did create a website that records the whole thing for posterity. And we were particularly pleased when the exhibition got into the D&AD Annual 2006, where all the fellow entrants seemed to be working with multi-million budgets. 

Presumably, the equivalent exhibition today would have to be tadpole-shaped.

Significant developments


A couple more developments on Significant Objects to share (background in last couple of posts) – first of all, this article on the Eye Magazine blog; and also an interview I did with Rob Walker, co-curator of the project, which is now up on the 26 website.

An initial flurry of bidding has brought Kenny up to $11.11. Bidding remains open until 6pm this Friday 16 October, so it’s all to play for.

Finally, they're running an open contest if you fancy writing a story yourself – details here.

26 x 2


Two interesting events coming up at 26, the writers' organisation of which I'm a director.

The first is the 26 Annual Lecture with Oona King, former Labour MP (famously ousted by Respect's George Galloway) and now Head of Diversity at Channel 4. It takes place at the British Library on 8 October 2009 and tickets are available here. Well worth coming along, not only for the speech itself, but also because it's a good 26 social event and everyone tends to be there. (We blogged about last year's lecture here.)

The second is an exhibition called 26 Exchanges, in association with International PEN. It takes place from 21-25 September at the Royal Academy of Engineering in London and combines the writing talents of various 26 and PEN members with the design skills of Harry Pearce at Pentagram and Sanky at All Of Us. Pretty good line-up then. And it's open to all.

More on both events

More about 26

PS: Thanks to 26 snapper and director Jim Davies for the pic

Chinese whispers


Busy playing a new and possibly pointless game, inspired by the goings-on at 26’s Free The Blog. The idea is to highlight the difficulties inherent in any form of cultural translation (which is what the blog is all about – read more about it here.)

Fairly simple rules:

1. Go to http://babelfish.yahoo.com/

2. Enter the text from a well-known work of literature (up to 150 words)

3. Translate from English to Chinese (trad)

4. Copy and paste the resulting text, then translate back into English.

Here are a couple of results so far:

My WANDER' D remote achievement cloud that in high o' Float; Not valley and hill, when I simultaneously saw the crowd, master's golden yellow narcissus; Nearby the lake, under the tree, inspires the wing and dances in the breeze. Continuously as illumination star, and in Milky Way flash, their stretch' In endless line d along bay boundary: 11,000 looked at looked I, threw them in the lively place dance head. The wave dances nearby them; But they have exceeded in the happy sparkle wave: The poet is impossible, but is joyful, in this kind of happy company: I gazed at -- And gazes at -- But an idea was assorted the wealth to bring to my demonstration: For frequently, when I lies in mine couch in vacant or in the ponder mood, do they flash in that internal eye which are solitary extremely happy; Then I and pleasure fill heart, and yellow narcissus's dance.

The survival destroys, that is a question; Whether ' tis in suffers nobly in brains crude fortune suspension cable and arrow, or adopts the arm opposition troublesome sea, and through the opposition, finished them. The death, sleeps; Does not have; And by said that our sleep conclusion heartache and 1000 natural vibration that flesh and blood were successor - ' tis is reverent completes wish' D. dies, sleeps; Sleeps, accidentally has a dream. Ay, there' perhaps the s friction, is dying that sleep's any dream to come, when we towed this to curl at the point of death, must give us to pause.

Feel free to create your own over at the blog.

Raspberry & Raspberry


Strange the things you get asked to do as a writer. I recently contributed a piece to this site by John Simmons (co-founder of 26, pioneer of verbal identity, writer of numerous books on business writing). His new book is called 26 ways of looking at a blackberry: how to let writing release the creativity of your brand.

As part of the book launch (today), he asked 26 writers to take a piece of fruit and imagine how it would talk. In my case, it was raspberry. First task was to define the tone of voice:

What’s a raspberry like?! Flipping heck! What a silly question, you nincompoop! A raspberry is childish and silly and rude. It leaves you all red-faced and spluttering. (Although it doesn’t mean any harm and it’s actually quite sweet.) Anyway, leave me alone now you plonker! :P

Next came the challenge of writing a letter from a bank, explaining why it's a good idea to stick with them during the downturn. But in the tone of a raspberry.

Bear in mind I’m still in character here.

Dear Poo-face

Only joking you wazzock!

Okay, listen to this right. Banks are really stupid, aren’t they? Load of wallies in silly suits going round borrowing too much dosh and spending it on sweets and stuff. Flipping berks.

Well, ner to them, because Raspberry Bank isn’t like that! We’ve been really really careful for ages because we’re not blinking lemons like the others. That’s why you put your lolly with us! Because you’re not really a wazzock like we said before (soz about that).

Mind you, you would be a wazzock if you went putting your lolly somewhere else! Flipping heck! What kind of spanner would do something like that! Chinny reckon!

Tell you what, you keep being our bezzy mates and we’ll keep being yours.

And if you don’t then you can bog off! You divvy! :P

Later alligator!

Nick Asbury, Client Liason Director, Raspberry Bank

You can see 25 (slightly more grown-up) examples here.

And don’t forget to order the book.

Image from Full Stop Photography

Speech, speech

Sue and I are both members of a not-for-profit organisation called 26, which brings together writers, editors and language lovers from different backgrounds. They recently kicked off the first in a series of Annual 26 Lectures at the British Library. The speaker was Phillip Collins, the political wordsmith who penned most of Tony Blair's most famous speeches. He's a clever man and, as you might expect, a persuasive speaker. You can see the whole thing here. And if you're not a member of 26 yet, it's well worth the membership fee (£26/year, naturally).

Annual 26 speech 2008 from Tom Clarkson on Vimeo.