It's a washout

Daniel Trilling tunes in to some groundbreaking stuff and nonsense.

Rinse FM

On Rinse, DJ Scratcha was feeling the effects of the recent heatwave. "Overly sweatin' . . . gosh, cannot co-operate in this . . ." There was a pause as he cued up a record, or perhaps reached for a swiftly melting Calippo. Moments later, Scratcha was back and sounding refreshed. "Where you going for holiday and who with?" (It was a rhetorical question.) "One of my friends is in Turkey right now but with her mum, that is a par. You know when you're going on holiday with your mum and your mum don't want to rave? Not my mum though, my mum gets me drunk and everything."

A few facts. One, "par" is slang for insult or mishap. Two, Rinse is a groundbreaking London music station, having launched the careers of Dizzee Rascal, Wiley, Tinchy Stryder and many others. Since 1994 it has broadcast as a pirate station (one of its DJs has an Asbo banning him from venturing on to any rooftop higher than four storeys in the Tower Hamlets area) but has recently been granted an FM licence. If you don't live in the capital, you can listen online.

Heading Rinse's campaign for legit status is Scratcha, who hosts the breakfast show (weekdays, 8am to 11am). Scratcha knows his music - on a typical morning you'll hear a choice selection of grime, dubstep, UK funky and the delightful tones of the potty-mouthed American rapper Nicki Minaj - but he also knows how to give good chat. That might include astute political comment ("North Korea, that's some nex' regime ting, innit?"), engaging with the audience ("This one goes out to those people who had a bit too much over the weekend, you know them mad benders where you go out in your work clothes on Friday night and you're still in them on Sunday") or simply shooting the breeze ("Oi, if you actually look atBournemouth sometimes in the summer it looks like flippin' Barbados, the only thing that's different is the people, if they just put a whole load of black people there you'd be like, rah, I'm in Jamaica...").

Let's face it, you're likely to get more sense out of Scratcha than you do out of Radio 4's breakfast chat. Recently, the Today programme has turned into a parade of ministers spouting garbage as they try to deflect attention from the coming dismemberment of Britain's public sector. Last Monday, it was Michael Gove's turn, accusing the BBC of "processology" for daring to ask details of his school reforms.

Tory MPs may cry foul at the Beeb's perceived left-wing bias, but on Monday it fell to the veteran conservative commentator Peter Hitch­ens, talking to Wendy Robbins in The House I Grew Up In (19 July, 9am, Radio 4), to rail against the Cameronistas. "The Prime Minister has referred to you as a maniac," Robbins said. "How do you react to that?"

“Well, it's high praise, isn't it?" growled the old battlecruiser as they stood on Portsmouth Dockyard, reminiscing about Peter's childhood. But Hitchens wasn't here to talk politics; ra­ther, he was on a "personal journey". The pair moved on to the Hitchens family home, Cedarwood, where Peter recalled a fractious relationship with his elder brother, Christopher. It was dreadful, he said.

“My father made us sign a treaty, called the Treaty of Cedarwood, and he displayed it on the kitchen wall until I took it down and scrubbed my name out." Now that, Christopher, is what they call a par.

Antonia Quirke is away

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: leader of the Labour party

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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