Writer’s block

Don’t think, just write.

By Gary Scarrabelotti

To write, or not to write, that is the question:

“Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them …”

Hamlet-like inertia often get’s the better of me when it comes to letters. What’s the point of writing – or blogging? Why add more words to the ocean of words. What do I have to say when so many others say it better — or, if not better, then with greater ease. 

An aptitude for pouring out words has never been mine. Partly, it’s want of skill in fitting them together.  They never flow.  Writing, I find, is like a clumsy apprentice trying to piece together, with cutters and pliers, the poorly executed tiles of a mosaic.  Sometimes I can see the picture — what I want to say — in faint outline, but don’t know how to start out or, once started, how to fill out the mental sketch. Partly, it’s a block that comes with perfectionism: of subconsciously making the perfect the enemy of the good. Why write anything when one cannot write markedly better than so many others who seem to know more and who can express themselves with greater facility?  Why attempt attempt a merely workmanlike job when it falls far below level of craftsmanship to which one aspires and that others more easily achieve?

It’s a recipe for doing nothing and it reminds me of a funny and deeply instructive story.

My friend Bill was sitting at his desk at The Australian after an exhausting day reporting a dramatic court case. Before him lay his note pad and he, head in hands, was staring at his shorthand. He had a great deal to digest. Up comes the editor, the inimitable Les Hollings with his East End drawl. 

“Bill, mayte, what are you doin’?”

“Les, I’m thinking.”

“Bill, mayte, don’ fink, jus’ wriyte.”

Prudent pen 

Then there is the problem of having, often, nothing to say. Once a high person in the land asked me, “Why don’t you write more?” On reflection, the answer I gave was short and churlish. I did not wish to ruin an otherwise delightful occasion. 

Sometimes silence is called for. Often one needs to meditate on the height and depth of a thing. It’s vanity to write when one does not understand.  Even a little understanding is called for. Then there are times when one grasps a thing – or has, at least, some narrow shaft of insight into it.  Yet sometimes one’s newly discovered ‘truth’ is merely a platitude to others; or it’s too disconcerting in its implications, or foreign, to one’s intended audience. Not every time and circumstance is suitable for telling the truth and, even in the right moment, the truth unvarnished can be too much. Christ often taught in parables, and He had something to say. Even God must be prudent. 

A problem of a different kind arises when prudence in the service of the good, the true and the beautiful shifts into a lower key: prudence in the service of safety – safety from controversy and risk to one’s credit.

The problem today, like no other time in my life, is that the pressure to self-censor is enormous; and it’s becoming more insistent.  When I look back over a few years and an irregular series of Scarra Blogs, I don’t feel as free today as I did when, in May 2010, I decided cockily to get back into the writing habit.

So much for that!


Anyway, don’t mention the “A” word. Never argue, for instance, that the difference between a baby in the womb and a baby out is a difference not of kind. Careers can be derailed even by careful words.

Don’t mention the “SSM” phrase either. Never write this, for example: that SSM is the biologically impossible reaching for the credibility of the real.  The best you can hope for is to be sent to Coventry. 

There are other less important matters, too, about which speech is not free. Islam for instance. You know, “Islam is a religion of peace.” We are always tippy toeing around the historical experience.  I recall with amusement this very cautious dictum from the pen of a friend: that among religions Islam is “sui generis”. Masterly. Once I fell into conversation with an accomplished Arabist and expert in the Islamic books. He left me with this, however, more satisfactory judgement: “There are many moderate Moslems; there is no moderate Islam.”

When I mention Islam and our strictures about addressing it, I am not talking about discussion on the Left of politics, I am talking about a speech code that has enveloped the Centre Right. Immigration and multiculturalism are in the the same category.

Another thing you have to watch, then, is carefully weighing what you can say about immigration and its connection with terrorism. You’d be really dim to argue, for instance, that bombing ISIS targets in Iraq or Syria has little to contribute to domestic security when the real source of our fears is not so much the rise of new Sons of Mahomet in the Middle East, their armies and frightful deeds, as the spectrum of our domestic policies spanning immigration, refugees and multiculturalism. Our terrorism problems – and the far reaching security measures taken in response to them — are wholly imported and self-inflicted.

Leper, begone!

The silence

Nowadays, even references to Russia, Putin and Ukraine are covered by taboos terrible to break. I say this not because I am married to a beautiful Ukrainian woman — and sturdy foot soldier in two revolutions — who has “shared” with me, often enough, her weighty and colourful judgements on all three.  I say it because the greatest untold story in the western media is about how Ukraine’s government, it’s bureaucrats and oligarch backers – you know, the “good guys” in Kyiv —  have been robbing ordinary Ukrainians blind as well as the mug westerners who keep lending them money.

Have you heard, from the mainstream western media, how millions of Ukrainian bank depositors, both corporate and personal, have been stripped of their funds, the money vanishing into thin air? On the latest count, 67 banks have been liquidated and some 400 billion UAH in savings gone missing.

Can you tell me when and where you last read, in the mainstream western media, about IMF and World Bank loans, intended to refinance Ukraine’s under-capitalised banks, disappearing into foreign accounts?

(Maybe, if you were very attentive you might have spotted this piece: “Undelivered Goods by Andrew Cockburn in Harper’s Magazine last August.  If you haven’t read it, which is more than possible, then you should. In every sense, it’s exceptional.)

Maybe, however, you did hear last week that the IMF is threatening to stop further tranches of funding for Ukraine unless the Poroshenko-Yatsenyuk government takes decisive steps against corruption.

What kind of corruption few people, either inside Ukraine or out, care to specify.  You can count on your fingers the few who have done so. In this, Forbes Ukraine and its contributors have played a rare honourable role. Otherwise, you’re confronted with a great and remarkable silence.  It’s there because the full story about post-Maidan Ukraine — and the vast machinery of theft left untouched by its government — spoils the western world mantra: Yanokovych stole; Putin invaded; Ukrainians defend and build. Yes, Ukrainians are dying defending their land; but the only ones building are the people at the top of Ukraine’s robber state.

The truth really is too dreadful to utter. That’s why you are not about to hear from 1900 Pennsylvania Avenue that the IMF has taken an undisclosed loss on its Ukraine lending. All the more so since the heist took place right under the averted gaze of the IMF’s closest Ukrainian interlocutors: the senior officials of the country’s reserve bank, the National Bank of Ukraine. 

Ukraine’s oligarch bankers and their senior executives use well-trodden money trails out of the country: one of them runs right through the NBU.  The simplest, and most barefaced, way of getting money out of Ukraine involves establishing a relationship with a western correspondent bank.  But correspondent accounts have to be registered with the NBU which ought immediately to ring a warning bell. But it never does.[1] No wonder there’s a Washington taboo against the after-Maidan story.


One day I met a man.  He was a prominent figure in the Ukrainian diaspora and mentioned his membership of an international network of Ukrainian nationalists. It seemed that he travelled a bit, to and from Ukraine.  He claimed a certain acquaintance with an oligarch of interest to me.  And, apparently, he and his nationalist brothers had met together in Kyiv with President Poroshenko. 

Lucky encounter, I told myself.

At the time, I was much exercised by the fact that my wife’s life savings had been wiped out in the liquidation of a bank owned by said oligarch. Here perhaps, I imagined to myself, is someone who will understand.  Maybe he could even open a door somewhere beyond which there might be justice for my wife — and for my Ukrainian friends who had likewise lost every penny.

He seemed to lend a willing ear and heard me out.  I told him at length about what I had learned, with the help of my Ukrainian connections, about the liquidation of banks and the disappearance of IMF loan monies and of depositors’ funds.  When I finished, he looked me straight in the eye.

“I’ve never heard any of that.”


[1]До чого призведе найбільша фінансова афера десятиріччя?” (Yevgeny Kostenko, “What happens after the greatest financial scam of the decade?” Forbes Ukraine, 13 January 2016)






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