Show Hide image

Waiting for the bees and the blossom of the cherry plum

The author Katherine Swift gives us her reflection on spring, a time of the returning sun and fresh life in the garden. 

Illustration by Laura Carlin

Illustration by Laura Carlin

‘‘Look! We have come through.”

Some years you can smell it before you see it, like a trav­eller scenting land after months at sea – a smell of greenness that suddenly catches you unawares. Sometimes it’s the sight of the early-morning sun striking the corner of the window for the first time in months and you realise that the earth is swinging back towards the equinox once more. Sometimes it’s a sound: the birds beginning to sing again in the darkness before a February dawn. Or a feel: the texture of the claggy earth rubbed between finger and thumb, feeling dry and crumbly at last. Every year there is something that makes you think, “Yes! It’s here.”

But this winter has never seemed to end – no tidemark of returning sun, no sudden smell of greenness. Paradoxically, it never even seemed to begin. The grass went on growing; the horticultural fleece lay unused in piles in the shed; tender plants, unprotected, went unscathed. There were roses in bloom at Christmas and Lent lilies in January. Six weeks of gales and floods but never a frost.

The bell-ringers’ annual service was on 1 February, the Saturday before Candlemas. Parts of the garden were still underwater and the wind was so strong that it almost blew the plates out of my hands as I carried them into the church for tea. There was to be an hour and a half of ringing, then the service, then tea – mounds of sandwiches and scones, cakes and quiches, all laid out on tables in the back of the church – then the AGM and another hour or so of ringing. It was already dark when we sat to listen to the sermon. The vicar took for her text the story of Candlemas: how Simeon and Anna, two superannuated temple attendants who have been hanging on to see the birth of the Messiah, recognise him at last in the baby Mary brings.

And that’s when Simeon says the Nunc Dimittis – the lovely canticle that gives Candlemas its name:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace: according to thy word:

For mine eyes have seen thy salvation

Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;

A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

The words are familiar from compline and evensong and from funerals and memorial services. But we don’t know how old Simeon was. It’s always assumed that he was ancient. Perhaps he was young, the vicar said, one of those fervent young men who hang about and make a nuisance of themselves – a fan, a geek, just someone determined not to go away until he saw the Messiah. The point was that he persevered. Whatever age he was, she said, she felt God would have said to him: “Well done. You made it. You came through.”

Earlier in the day I had gone up the garden to check if the bees needed feeding again. I have been feeding them since before Christmas. Disease and the vagaries of the weather nowadays mean that every year a high proportion of bee colonies fails to survive the winter. One colony in particular was a cause for concern – a late swarm that hadn’t had time to make enough honey to last it through to spring. Cautiously, trying not to let the cold air in, I tilted the roof of the hive just enough to be able to slide another pot of bee candy over the hole in the crown board. I hadn’t seen the bees themselves since long before Christmas.

Waiting to see if the bees will re-emerge in spring is always an anxious time. Whatever I am doing in the garden – pruning roses, cutting out dead wood – I always find myself drifting up to look at the silent hives. This year the unceasing rain and wind had kept me, and them, penned indoors longer than usual. But then one day – a  gap in the rain – it was a little warmer and suddenly there they were, like a wisp of smoke above the hive. Creeping closer, I watched them coming and going on the alighting board. The queen was laying. All was well.

On my way back to the house I saw that the sudden warmth had also brought out the blossom of the cherry plum, a froth of white against the winter-dark hedges. There were red shoots of peonies in the rose border and silvery tufts of growth on the woody stems of the clematis. There was even a solitary snake’s head fritillary in bud in the sodden Lammas meadow.

Nothing to eat in the vegetable garden yet but as I passed the spinney I picked hawthorn buds, Jack-by-the-hedge and wild garlic leaves and made a wild salad to add to the last of the apples in the fruit store – Norfolk Beefing and Lane’s Prince Albert – together with a handful of walnuts picked last September from the trees behind the hives, and added them to the shop-bought celery languishing in the fridge: the taste of spring, that sharp mixture of old and new, hope and regret. It’s here, arrived at last, slipped under the wire when I wasn’t looking.

I fetch from the bookshelf D H Lawrence’s cycle of love poems – the chronicle of his first stormy months with Frieda – and read “Spring Morning”: “We have come through.”

Katherine Swift is the author of “The Morville Hours: the Story of Garden” (Bloomsbury, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism