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In midwinter, signs of new life

Alice Oswald's nature column.

All over England, in dark rainy towns, in misty flooded villages, people are flicking through seed catalogues. People with too many children, people trapped in their houses in winter – the thought of seeds is stirring them, giving them a tiny image of escape:

“All those little ones with feathery fronds like parachutes; ones that dress up in tasty flesh to be eaten and deposited elsewhere; ones like cyclamen, whose stem develops into a tightly coiled spring that brings the seed pod back to the earth. If you part the leaves, you can just see a series of springs. Oh, I love the catalogues. I can’t wait till the season comes round again.”

Seeds are simply obstructed leaves. If you bend a branch until it’s horizontal, the sap will slow to a stopping point: a comma or colon, made of leaves grown into one another and over one another and hardened. Out of this pause comes a flower, which unfolds itself in spirals, as if the leaf form, unable to keep to its line, had begun to pivot.

At the base of all this pausing and spinning, made of the same ecstatic stillness you find at the centre of a wheel, there are the seeds. They are very hard-coated and patient. Like 1920s women, saying nothing at the supper table, they hold the whole story of the leaf but their particular skill is to sit tight, waiting their turn: “Poppies, for instance – they can sit 70 years in the soil, waiting for the right conditions. Sometimes, they’re just waiting for the flash of light that comes when you’re digging.

“You know there’s always a flush of weeds when you turn the soil? That’s because there are millions of ungerminated seeds just waiting for your spade to let the light in.”

The seed saver, although she loves the catalogues, doesn’t buy many seeds. “What’s happening now is that our seeds are in the hands of about six companies and they only want varieties that have uniformity and a long shelf life. All the rest are lost. It’s phenomenally dangerous.”

She prefers to save them and swap them. “If it’s peas and beans, I let them dry on the plant. Quite early on, I select which ones I want to save and I leave a variety. I’m looking for a good bean and a random time of development. Broad beans, they have their own special, silky, floppy lining. They’re snuggled into this lovely cocoon; you can see an impression of all the beans in it, like a floppy soft bed.

“I peel it apart and sniff it and pop the seed out and pull off that rubbery grey skin and there’s the bright green bean underneath. But with tomatoes, I just wipe it on a bit of newspaper and tear it off. I remember one old boy who used to squash a tomato under his heel and just wait for it to germinate the following year. As for sweet peas, they’re so rock hard, you can’t imagine they’re going to burst into life.”

Growing pains

She shakes out a handful. They look like lead shot or plastic beads. It’s hard to define how they differ from any of these, except that a bead, once you know it is a bead, seems a finished thing, whereas a seed gives off an atmosphere of becoming. It has the look of something introverted, sealed in, held down, blindfolded, compacted – a little capsule of frustration.

“Sometimes, if you’ve sown quite thickly, the force of the seedlings raises the whole crust of the seed tray. I find that sort of thrilling, the way it pushes up the earth. It shows what power is behind it. They just want to get out; they really, really want to grow.”

Alice Oswald was in conversation with Alison Williams

Alice Oswald is an award-winning poet. She writes the nature column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, 2013: the year the cuts finally bite

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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