Town on BBC2: Welcome to the bay to nowhere

Oh, our poor towns. What on earth have they done to deserve all this attention?

Town
BBC2

I know Oban quite well, from the air. Some years ago, an open-cockpit biplane in which I was travelling from the Isle of Mull to Glasgow was forced to make an emergency landing at what was laughingly known as the town’s airport (in reality, a disused car park whose “control tower” comprised an old caravan).

As you may imagine, this was somewhat terrifying, for all that I was wearing both a fireproof suit and a parachute. But even in a state of quaking fear, I was still able to register how bleak the place looked. As I listened to the dialogue between the pilot (my then boyfriend) and (ha, ha!) “air traffic control” – the euphemism “unscheduled landing” was used, doubtless for my benefit – I remember thinking: “Oban. What a place to die!”

Oban was the star of the first film in the latest series of Town (21 May, 9pm), which is sort of like Coast, only with more buildings and less guano. Why towns? As its presenter, Nicholas Crane, told us in the opening sequence, towns are “where we first learned to be urban”. This sounded kind of interesting to me – perhaps by going back to our roots, we can work out how to make city life a little more tolerable – but, in truth, it wasn’t an idea he explored very much. Or, indeed, at all.

Crane isn’t a great one for ideas – beside the Johnson’s dictionarythat is Jonathan Meades, he will always be a mere Ladybird book – and for this reason his films have the weird feel of the schools education programmes I remember being forced to watch in the 1980s, when my teachers were too busy planning their next strike to get up off their arses and teach.

Sometimes, Crane’s footage was so boring, it might almost have been a spoof. First, he showed us the local quarry. Then, he visited a sorting office. And then, as a special treat, he jumped aboard a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry. The quarry was notable for its reserves of granite. The sorting office was marked out by its abundance of letters. The ferry was replete with passengers.

Crikey. I was on the edge of my seat. What next? A pub, where the characteristically Scottish beverages that are known as “beer” and “whisky” may be purchased and enjoyed over a quiet chat with friends? Or what about a quick tour of Oban’s railway station, where tickets for travel are on sale at what is known colloquially as “the ticket office”?

Oban is dominated by the rather wonderful McCaig’s Tower, a folly of granite on which construction began in 1897 and which resembles the Colosseum (I remember it well, as seen from the tiny metal bird in which I had foolhardily agreed to go away for a “romantic” weekend). Crane informed us that no one knows why John Stuart McCaig, a local banker, decided to build it – largely because he died before its completion.

Is this so? I understood that the project was a benevolent one, the better to keep local stonemasons in work during the winter. Also, that McCaig had hoped to instal some kind of gallery inside it, complete with memorial statues of his family. And I’m afraid that Visit Scotland agrees with me. Anyway, right or wrong, it was at this point that I truly ached for a little Meades-style lyricism: some vivid line to explain the strange and now almost extinct impulse for folly-building. The best Crane could do was to lower his voice to a whisper and describe it as a “sanctuary”.

I can’t believe that Town – this is the second series – is ever going to be as big a hit as Coast (eight series and counting). But if by some miracle it is, we’d better brace ourselves. According to Wikipedia, there are 936 towns in Britain, so it could run and run. In the fullness of time, Crane and his Pooterish insights might even start to have an effect on house prices – at which point, he’ll be the new Kirstie Allsopp. Or something.

Oh, our poor towns. What on earth have they done to deserve all this attention? First, Mary Portas, in her spike heels and Barbarella frocks. Now, Crane in his sensible boots and his Gore-Tex. All I can offer by way of reassurance is the certain knowledge that no one ever moved anywhere just because it had a particularly hectic sorting office.

A fisherman in Oban. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

DREW KELLY/NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit