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  • Writer's pictureJen Stout

2023

There is such a vast gulf between Shetland and Donbas, such a lot of sea and different realities, but these are the two places that stick most when I think about the past year I've had. I was everywhere and nowhere, mostly on trains, making the very long journey from Shetland to Ukraine, then all the way back, not once but twice. The year started in Fair Isle, in blasting sleet dark gale rain, croft-sitting in a house I once lived in, writing heavy heavy things, and by February I was 15 degrees further south by latitude and speeding through a sunny, frosty Poland in a jeep with two priests; soon I was in Kharkiv, revving up my friend's little car for another trip to Donbas, this time to Kramatorsk, to frontline villages where every second is, frankly, terrifying, back to Kharkiv, back to Kramatorsk again, always on the road, then Kyiv, Lviv, and the long journey back in April, via London, Edinburgh, via a thousand (only slight exaggeration) spare rooms and sofas and flats lent by kind and long-suffering friends. A weird summer, restless and rocketing around, trying to sit still, getting awards and not knowing how to feel about them, hearing of Victoria Amelina's death and feeling a lot of grief and anger because sometimes you meet people who you know are utterly, totally extraordinary and beautiful and it seems incomprehensible that they'd die because of some lunatic neighbour firing an old missile at a pizza restaurant. Then two solid months of writing the book, tough and strangely cathartic in almost total solitude, and we'll see if I did a good job, it's out 2nd May.

I spent most of November sofa-hopping round the southeast, I had work stuff in Edinburgh and London but weeks apart and you just can't 'nip home' to Shetland, and friends are so kind to put me up but it is exhausting to do it for so long. All the while also I was doing book edits, from various sofas, beds, cafes, trains, my neck and wrists seizing up. But I did get to see a lot of people I love. Who are scattered everywhere, all the bright stars on my map. I went back to Ukraine in December, because it had been too long, because I wanted to see my friends there, but it was a very very tiring and quick trip dashing around, amid a lot of missile and drone strikes on Kyiv, the same familiar sight of torn-up play parks and burnt-out flats and people looking up numbly at their homes, and really wishing no one would have to see this again, but since then - early December - it's only got worse. I've been home for Christmas, eating and being merry with my family, and then reading the news from Kharkiv and elsewhere, and just relentless relentless hell raining down on them, and the feeling that the collective 'we', the western countries, are paying less attention, and that scares me deeply. I think most people get it though, why we should be supporting Ukraine. The gulf between Shetland and Donbas, between 'us' and 'them over there', isn't really that big at all. The one thing I've learnt above all, the past two years, is that people are pretty much the same everywhere: doing their best, often scared, often brave, deep down very good.

I've met some absolutely amazing people this year. I was thinking about this under this wild fiery sky that Krakow put on, the day in late December that I was waiting for the airport bus, so dead tired I slept all the way on it, out like a light - but for a minute I could really appreciate this sunset, this mad shifting sky, and where I was and what I'd been doing.


Some of the work I'm proudest of this year:


Vlada Chernykh's obituary, front page of the Sunday Post, January

Life on the Edge of Oil, BBC Radio 4, February

'Hunting for Vakulenko', New Humanist, February

Frontline evacuation run, Sunday Post, March

Kramatorsk dispatch, LRB, March

On Victoria Amelina, New European, July


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