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Why aren’t we more scared of the things most likely to kill us?

Will Self's "Madness of Crowds" column.

As I write the traffic is still backed up from the Wandsworth Road – I can hear an occasional frustrated honk from a trapped van man, or the stifled yawp of an emergency services vehicle threading its way through the metallic mesh. I’ve only been out this morning to walk the dog: a turd-bagging totter around the block but even here, several hundred yards away from the actual road closure, there are sheepishly bemused drivers diverted away from the flock.

Yesterday morning I was sitting on the top deck of the 88 bus: the traffic was slower than usual heading down the South Lambeth Road and as we reached Vauxhall Cross there began to be the unmistakable signs of an accident having just happened: fire engines shouldering cars over to the kerb and even firemen, on foot, running. By the time we were chugging over Vauxhall Bridge I’d overheard a man a few seats ahead of us say that a helicopter had crashed into the crane on top of the new cylindrical tower that, for the past few months, has been being extruded from the embankment – another architectural abomination to sully the London skyline.

Before we’d gained the north bank of the Thames, and despite the fog, my wife – who was sitting beside me – had visual confirmation: she could see the broken jib of the crane. It was about 8.15am and the crash had happened only a few minutes before. Back at home a couple of hours later I had a phone call from the man who mends my typewriters – he lives in a suburb of northwest London and had seen the crash reported on the news. Was I, he wanted know, all right? My wife was a little dismissive of his solicitude, seeing it as a slightly wacky example of ambulance-chasing by proxy, but with my fine attunement to – and sympathy with – the madness of crowds, I was rather touched by his concern.

True, this was the first time that anyone in London had ever been killed by a helicopter falling out of the sky on top of them but the singularity of the event only made it more paradigmatic. In survey after survey, people report that the greatest dangers they face are, in this order: terrorist attack, plane crashes and nuclear accidents. This despite the fact that these three combined have killed fewer people in the past half-century than car accidents do in any given year.

True, the mediatisation of certain kinds of spectacular events – the attack on the Twin Towers being the most obvious example – ensures they remain high in the anxiety hit parade, but I think there’s more to it than that. Human agency also makes us antsier: the idea that an individual or group of individuals is out there acting with malevolent intent is, we feel intuitively, a threat we should be able to assess and act upon – whereas there can be no anticipation of acts of God (or gods), unless, that is, we have a shamanic capacity for prognostication. It perhaps seems unfair but even human error of the kind that was probably involved in the helicopter crash, is, I would argue, grouped by our psyches under the heading of the potentially avoidable.

It may be crazy but in a deep recess of the group mind we imagine that we ought to reason along these lines: hmm, looks foggy out this morning, I think I’ll give Wandsworth Road a swerve – they’ll have switched off the warning lights on top of that crane and an unwitting helicopter pilot might crash into it . . . That this is a vanishingly small likelihood is neither here nor there, because the perceptual equipment required to swim safely through the urban mill race includes the expectation of other humans’ cock-ups as standard – along with airbags and safety belts.

All of this also helps explain why it is that public-safety campaigns need to be quite so relentless: they’re in competition. The wildcard helicopter crash gets free blanket coverage, but the 4,000 annual car fatalities have to pay for their bus shelter space. And with spectacular events taking up so much of the available anxiety quotient, we need to be constantly reminded of the more workaday threats to our mortality – threats that, while they may also be functions of human error, have become so ubiquitous that we’ve begun to apprehend them as natural phenomena. The traffic – like a river – either flows, or it is damned; and when it’s damned it backs up: a great logjam of frustration, anger and anxiety from out of which will come a host of misfortune. I’m not going to risk fording it – I think I’ll stop at home for the rest of the day.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

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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