Write to Change the World #1

John-Paul Flintoff
7 min readAug 19, 2021

Hi, this is the first in a shortish, time-limited series about How To Write. It’s a follow-up to the course of that name, which I created for The Idler Academy.

I’m calling the series Write To Change The World (WTCTW) because the subject of “how to write” is vast, and needs to be contained somehow.

So I’m containing it by looking back ten years to the summer when I wrote How To Change The World (Macmillan/The School of Life). I’ll be sharing how I went about it, and what I might do differently if I were to write it now.

To begin, a little scene-setting…

London Riots of 2011. Man in front of blazing car throws something

It was 2011, a summer of riots in London, where I live, which were followed by the charming #riotcleanup movement, in which tens of thousands of Londoners used social media (and that hashtag in particular) to co-ordinate street cleaning.

Here are some of them, in Camden:

Activists in London, 2011, using brooms to clean up after the riots

Back then, the mayor of London was Boris Johnson. Now, he’s prime minister. When Johnson visited Clapham just after the riots, he was greeted by cries of “Boris, where’s your broom?” Yesterday, in parliament, he received essentially the same message — though without the light-hearted overtone — as MPs gathered to debate the mess in Afghanistan.

As I wrote that last sentence, I was conscious that you might be reading it long after I type it. You might think, “What mess in Afghanistan? And who is Boris Johnson?”

Timely v. Timeless

This is one of the difficulties facing any writer: how to be up-to-the-minute and also relatively timeless?

For most of my writing life, as a journalist, I’ve known that editors only really want me to include what is new. As an author, the pull is (often) in the other direction: to write something that will endure.

In 2011, as I worked on writing How To Change The World, I wrestled with this problem. Riots followed by #riotcleanup would have made a wonderful case study — but would they seem, with hindsight, terribly dated?

John-Paul Flintoff

Journalist for the Financial Times, Sunday Times and Guardian. Author of six books, fiction and non-fiction, in 16 languages. http://bit.ly/2OsqPew