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My exercise is limited to bottle-opening; it’s safer that way

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out in London" column.

I am in the pub with a group of people I mostly do not know very well and I am preoccupied, my mind very much elsewhere, for reasons we’ll get to, and someone starts talking about spinning, and what music to listen to while doing it. How sweet, I think, is spinning having a revival, like knitting a few years ago? (I wonder what happened to that.) I think of demure ladies with wimples, Ariadne, and Gretchen, abandoned by Faust. And . . . well, at this point the parade of mental images associated with spinning comes to a halt but these are fine to be getting on with.

It turns out that this spinning is actually an innocuous name for a terrible thing: exercise. Specifically, indoor exercise bikes, which can be modified in order to place differing strains on differing parts of the body. Hmm. I would appear to have fallen into the company of people who go to the gym.

Silent screams

Although a sudden fierce craving asserts itself as this sinks in, I decide it would be a little rude to step out for a cigarette at exactly that point, for by this time the conversation has my full attention. That is, I am both taking it in, as I am always up for learning about new experiences and modes of living, and also screaming, internally, in horror.

I think you will, if you follow my movements closely for the rest of my life, have more chance of finding me in a prison than you will in a gym. I remember gymnasia, which is what they were still occasionally called when I had no say in the matter, as places of punishment, stale sweat and humiliation, where stocky ex-services martinets would take evidence of physical weakness or malcoordination as symptoms of moral degradation. And then feel their testicles on the sly. Fuck them.

I do occasionally take exercise: a longish walk every now and then, a few miles on a Boris Bike (although as the charges for them have doubled this month – doubled! – I think I will be saying bye-bye to them in 2013) and even the odd desultory go with the dumb-bells, although my use of these has lapsed entirely of late; no point in having beefy arms unless one is planning on wielding a cricket bat (I also find that, as a rough and ready rule, there is an inverse correlation between the muscled thickness of the upper arm and intelligence and sensitivity to the feelings of others).

But a gym? All the technological advances in the world cannot make that pain and stench and shame go away. They’re also dangerous. I knew someone who collapsed and died while running to the gym. And if you think that’s an invention or poor joke on my part, it is not. So, largely, as long as I have enough strength in me to operate a corkscrew, that’s good enough for me.

And so, as this thought strikes me, I am brought back by a commodius vicus of recirculation to what had been preoccupying me in the first place: the injury to my mother mentioned last week. She is, in short, now in a state where she would be unable to operate a corkscrew; not that she would need one as much or as often as I would.

I will not bore you week after week with this, but heavens, it doesn’t half take up the thoughts. This does not have the existential pain of, say, heartbreak but one suddenly becomes permanently aware of human frailty and the capriciousness of fate. Also I am, as I frequently assure my parents in my monthly requests for cash, very fond of them, but it is all very well being fond of them at a distance; what counts is looking after them when things have gone horribly wrong. And they have gone wrong in an unexpected fashion. One had always expected the matriarch to be more hale than the patriarch, but sod’s law has to operate here as well as everywhere else. That the cat, of which the patriarch is inordinately fond, is going to have to be put down with me by his side tomorrow is a particularly unpleasant cherry on the cake.

Bright side

Well, things could be worse. She could have broken her hip, she could have been grossly mistreated at the Royal Free (I have heard some horror stories since) or . . . well, anyway. I say no more about what could have happened.

Because, as I contemplate the way that what started out as quite a good year turned into what might politely be called an omnishambles and impolitely called – sensitive readers, look away – a clusterfuck, it occurs to me that there is another image to do with spinning at the back of the memory banks, and that is of the Norns, weaving our destinies at the foot of Yggdrasil. It’s still better than going to the gym, though.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London 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