Mad Men: it's back!

Series five, episode one: Megan's dance, Don's soul and what on earth has happened to Harry Crane?

Never before has there been such hysterical excitement about the first episode of the fifth series of a long-running American television show. Televisions were self-immolating from anticipation. But this is Mad Men, and the rules are different, and they made us - the dribbling, adoring, devoted fans - wait for so unbelievably long after a plot twist at the end of the last series that saw Don Draper propose to his secretary. Those of us who care more than is healthy or right about this show have been stewing over this proposal for 18 months. I hope Matthew Wiener knows he is responsible for stomach ulcers across the land.

Anyway, here we are. It happened. And that strange first scene showing a bunch of unknown (to us) ad agency workers water-bombing a civil rights march made us panic - what have they done with the cast? The office? What have they done with Peggy? Luckily, this was not Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the beloved agency we left on the brink of collapse, but a rival. And we were soon back in Roger's inner sanctum, a parody-of-sixties-design (must be Jane's doing), watching him pretend to be useful. No one is hopeless as charmingly as Roger.

There, too, were Don and Megan (The Secretary) and, woah, there's Megan giving a sexy dance and singing a French song which sounds like elaborate baby talk at a surprise party for Don in their vast apartment which looks straight out of an overpriced Stoke Newington vintage furniture store. (Line of the episode goes to Lane Pryce describing Don watching his new, young wife cavort in front of the assorted lecherous guests: "I saw his soul leave his body".)

On the lechery point: what has happened to Harry Crane? I always liked Harry - the kind of character who eats in every scene and sweetly bolted from the boardroom in guilty tears after Don's Kodak Carousel presentation, so moved was he by the (ingeniously contrived) depiction of family life after he'd had it off with Pete Campbell's secretary. (Whatever happened to the humourless Hildy? I hope she returns as Duck's improbable mistress when he tries to drunkenly stage a hostile takeover of the company, before being lamped by Don, desperate to make up for that embarrassing empty swing in the last series. One thing Mad Men has taught us: anything is possible.) But now Harry is a horror - even more pervy and bigoted and dumb. He is also universally loathed. But this isn't the Harry we knew and loved. Moral of the story: LA does bad things to people.

And finally - our favourites - Peggy and Pete. I know, Pete isn't the popular choice but there is something so lovable about someone as socially awkward and keen on antique etiquette as Pete Campbell (also: I have been smitten since he and Trudy did That Dance at Roger and Jane's party). If that wasn't enough, the sight of Pete launching a comically furious campaign for a larger office - one, preferably, without a support pillar - is enough to melt the hardest heart. This is what ambition smells like. And Peggy? Still the soul of the piece, of course, plus Megan's boss (intriguing dynamic). When left holding Joan's baby for a brief moment, she looks - poignantly - as though she has been handed a goblin. Joan, meanwhile, is single-handedly carrying the "challenges of working motherhood" storyline - sound the Social Theme klaxon!

Still it was great, wasn't it? It felt like being reunited with dear friends you haven't seen for months. I wanted to note every change in clothing and expression and mood. Such is Weiner's militant attention to detail, you could feel the weight of history in a lampshade. But the best thing was that there were no tricks, no shock revelations - things had moved on exactly as you might have predicted they had moved on, and yet of course you hadn't predicted it quite right, because the glory of this show is that it is as entirely and beautifully unpredictable as an English spring.

Christina Hendricks: Joan in Mad Men. Credit: Getty Images

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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