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When the wind blows, the tree house will rock

Alice Oswald talks to Milo Webb.

About three miles from here there is a cat, who lives in a beech tree in a hedge. She has her own twostorey treehouse, with a spiral staircase, a wood-burner and an outside shower; and there she sleeps on a sheepskin rug and lets herself in and out through a hole in the floor.

Her creaking apartment used to be the home of a carpenter, who built it after spending time in Thailand:

“I was living in lots of funny little structures out there and I realised you can operate out of anything. When I discovered there was a water supply at the top of the hill, that’s when I had the idea of living here permanently. When the weather was good, it was lovely. People would come up for breakfast and have coffee and toast and eggs. But it was lonely in the winter and always a challenge to get the shopping up the hill. It’s very steep. Sometimes I did it on a little motorbike.”

For three years, he spent his nights balanced like a bird in the branches and his days making things out of wood: “but a living tree,” he says, “has almost nothing in common with a tree on a bench once its bark has come off. It’s only the name that connects them.”

A dead tree, cut into planks and read from one end to the other, is a kind of line graph, with dates down one side and height along the other, as if trees, like mathematicians, had found a way of turning time into form.

But a living tree is a changing, sleeve shape, a wet, thin, brightgreen creature that survives in the thin layer between heartwood and bark. It stands waiting for light, which it catches in the close-woven sieves of its leaves.

From a distance, it looks almost human – parental, stable, nostalgic, theatrical – but close up you get an impression of something hypersensitively twitchy. It has no nervous system but never stops shivering as it responds to split-second changes in the cloud and the wind.

Into this force field of tremblings come various species, all terrified of each other: “Great tits and blue tits mostly. I put a few nesting boxes in the branches and they’d turn up at the weekend when I wasn’t there. Then they’d see me and make their alarm gestures and squeak a lot. Then they’d just settle down, although still a bit wary. The squirrels were always hard to reckon with. I went away one summer and they realised they could come in and help themselves and they got bold and I couldn’t stop them. Once I woke up and went down stairs to confront one and it started running round the walls like a cat. The only way out was past me up through the trap door, so it finally used me as a foothold, dug its claws right into my thigh and jumped.”

Anyone who sleeps outside becomes part of this worldwide network of fear. Perhaps it isn’t fear. Perhaps it’s just a huge extroverted readiness in which trees participate. When the wind blows through a wood, its mass is cut and closed by every leaf, forming a train of jittery vortices in the air.

“Normally you can hear the wind but up there you feel it like a horrible pressure. I didn’t feel safe. To begin with, I relished it. I thought it would be fun if the whole thing started tearing itself apart. But what really freaked me out was when one of the next-door trees fell over. I woke up and there was this horrible crashing noise. It’s quite high where my bed is and after that, whenever it was windy, I couldn’t sleep. The sound of the wind just terrified me.

“So now I mostly use it as a kitchen and I’ve built myself a bed in the hedge under a holly bush. It’s quite a confined space, like a miniature house and that’s the place I sleep best of all. It’s got that slight thrill of being not quite safe. It’s not anchored so it really takes the brunt of the wind. It’s quite exhilarating, the feeling that it might slip down the hill.”

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

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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