Vision of life unfrozen: ice skaters by the Dutch painter Hendrick Avercamp (1585-1634). Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty
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Christmas cards were my window to another world

The child of a grey coal town in Calvinist Scotland, I was hungry for imagery, wild about colour and, even though I accepted that I would never live there, desperate for proof of some other world.

Growing up, I lived in a house without art: no picture books on the shelves, no visits to museums, no posters on the bedroom wall. That this was as much a blessing as a lack did not become clear until later: the child of a grey coal town in Calvinist Scotland, I was hungry for imagery, wild about colour and, even though I accepted that I would never live there, desperate for proof of some other world. There was no art gallery in Cowdenbeath, however, and our occasional visits to Edinburgh were spent walking round the shops, staring at things we couldn’t afford, before unpacking a picnic lunch in Princes Street Gardens, sometimes in sunshine, though more often in a fine, rather greasy drizzle.

The one exception to this monotony was Christmas. Everyone sent out cards in those days and, although the majority were of badly photographed robins and religious scenes, every now and then something came through the mail that startled me with its vibrancy and beauty. Though I didn’t think of it then as art (or, worse, as “culture”), that fortnight’s span leading up to Christmas introduced me to Brueghel and Hendrick Avercamp, to Joseph Farquharson and the Limbourg brothers – and every Twelfth Night, when the decorations came down and the cards on mantelpiece were about to be consigned to the fire, I would rescue a handful of the best pictures and hide them away in my room. Later, I added Japanese bridges in deep snow and, during a half-hearted correspondence with an American “pen pal”, a precious snow scene by Walter Launt Palmer.

Hardly anyone sends Christmas cards these days. Though I accept the environmental and financial logic of this, it doesn’t stop me feeling slightly cheated when the mail comes around. Clearly my childhood self was drawn to colour and to the delicacy of light reflected on snow but I think he also recognised that something else was going on, something that wasn’t obvious on the surface. That something is not easy to name or describe. Yes, it has to do with an acceptance of what, when many of the paintings were made, was a hard, even fatal season, a time of abstinence and bone-deep cold and, when the snow set in hard, dangerous isolation. But it also reveals a recognition of the magical process that happens invisibly at the turn of the year, a miraculous closing down of almost everything under the cover of ice and snow so that the earth can be renewed.

Snow isn’t just pretty. It also cleanses our world and our senses, not just of the soot and grime of a Fife mining town but also of a kind of weary familiarity, a taken-for-granted quality to which our eyes are all too susceptible. When the thaw comes, we are surprised again (if we are lucky) by forms and colours that we had almost forgotten. The first seedlings to uncurl from chill spring loam remind us that this rare planet’s abundant life, against which all the odds were heaped, is (to paraphrase the Spanish poet Jorge Guillén) a matter of law, rather than mere accident.

This year, I am collecting new images, mostly by the German expressionists whose work I first found at the Brücke Museum in Dahlem: artists such as Fritz Bleyl and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff who were active in the early years of the 20th century. Influenced partly by the Japanese woodcut tradition, they made winter scenes that are highly economical and, at the same time, immensely powerful. It is work that seems almost to pause time, while the year turns and that stillest of days, the winter solstice, renews our ties to the earth – ties that are both as binding as gravity and as mysteriously liberating as the intuition that Wallace Stevens had, gazing into the white origin of the snowy world, of “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

BBC
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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

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 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit