Busting a skank

A twenty tonne lion has provoked heated debate in Scotland and prompted the resignation of the curator Richard Calvocoressi. Created by Ronald Rae, the benign granite sculpture has charmed visitors in Holyrood Park (opposite the Scottish parliament) since it was first exhibited there two years ago. However, when Rae offered the lion to the Scottish parliament’s unique art collection his gift was refused. Calvocoressi, who at the time was a key figure of the Scottish Parliament's Art Advisory body, suggested that the lion (valued at £120,000) would devalue the collection as a whole, as its "rustic folk-art qualities" were at odds with the collection's ideals. Calvocoressi, who had been a member of the advisory body since 2005, suggested that the lion would be more at home in a business park than in front of the parliament buildings. The curator, who is head of the Henry Moore Foundation was disappointed to find his advice countered by public support for the lion - 2000 people signed a petition in favour of the beast and a number of MSPs backed Rae’s renewed offer to loan the lion on a temporary contract. Writing in the Observer last week Calvocoressicommented that the decision to allow the lion to reside in Holyrood park for three more years is sadly representative of the power of the Parliamentary Corporate Body’s desire to satisfy public demand. He expressed his dismay that his expertise was disregarded, ruefully commenting that “when it comes to art, everyone is suddenly an expert.” Ronald Rae, who has a number of other exhibits in Holyrood Park, defended his work, stating: "Richard Calvocoressi is an arrogant prick and his curatorial skills are crap . . . the public had spoken."

"Big Boi" from

OutKast has been busting a skank in the world of dance this week. The rapper’s new venture, Big, is currently being performed with artists from Atlanta Ballet. The performance, a multimedia extravaganza featuring local school children and videos, will incorporate OutKast tracks and an unreleased hip hop number titled "Sir Lucious Left Foot Saves the Day". Working in collaboration with choreographer Lauri Stallings, "Big Boi" (also known as Antwan Patton) agreed to the work in the hope that it would broaden hip hop’s boundaries. Showing admirable open-mindedness and dedication to the cause, the star commented “I’m down to try anything once.” The marriage of hip hop and ballet is not the only unusual pairing to surface this week. The ENO has announced that they have appointed the Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami to direct a production of Mozart’s comic opera Cosi fan Tutte in 2009. Kiarostami, best known for Through the Olive Trees and Taste of Cherry is one of a sequence o f film directorswho have turned their talents to opera. Critics have greeted the trend with mixed reactions.However the late Anthony Minghella directed an ENO production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly with great success in 2005. It is scheduled to be revived as a tribute to him next year.

Other arts news: Brigitte Bardot also courted controversy this week, when she was prosecuted after reportedly inciting racial hatred in a letter. The 73 year-old actress, who is now a passionate animal rights activist, wrote to the French government in 2006, criticizing the Muslim practise of slaughtering sheep without stunning them first. In a letter circulated to the Brigitte Bardot Foundation she wrote “We're fed up with being led by the nose by this population that is destroying us, destroying our country by imposing its acts." A campaign of a more palatable kind was also launched this week in conjuction with the Teenage Cancer Trust: an orchestra of instruments constructed out of parts of Ford cars is going on tour support the charity. A track featuring Genesis guitarist Mike Rutherford playing the "clutch guitar" is available online.

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide