Novel of the week

The Men from the boys

Philip Collins <em>HarperCollins, 358pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 0007126174

Whatever else Philip Collins does with his life, he has managed the unusual feat of combining the words "think-tank director" and "novelist" on his CV. Having spent most of my adult life in or around think-tanks, the thought of reading a novel by almost anyone I work with would normally fill me not so much with dread as with a profound longing for alcohol, or something else to numb the pain. Statistics and wonkery do not a novel make. It is not the least of the achievements of Collins - who is director of the Uber-Blairite Social Market Foundation - that his book does not read as if it has been published by a think-tank. I didn't spot a single statistic or policy proposal. Perhaps they were all excised from his first draft.

In truth, Collins has pulled off a neat trick: he has written a book that can be read on at least two levels - as the latest contribution to the "how men think" debate, and as a piece of neo-Dickensian social commentary, albeit with a narrow focus. This is the story of Adam and Kevin, who are neighbours on a council estate in Bolton. Although they are best friends and blood brothers (Collins is particularly good on such peculiar boyish rites), Adam is bookish while Kevin is a gifted footballer. Collins charts their lives over a generation. The plot is obvious from the first page, so I am not giving much away by saying that, while Adam enjoys the classic "poor boy makes good" success, Kevin's life falls apart. Given that Collins is writing a book not so much about Adam and Kevin but about class, fortune and social mobility, it would be easy for The Men from the Boys to be painfully didactic, the characters mere mouthpieces for his purpose. Yet they aren't. Nor are they mere archetypes. They are recognisable, yes. But they live and breathe. Even though I knew what was going to happen next (when has a book about two lifelong friends not involved one succeeding and the other failing, with a twist at the end?), I still wanted to see how they reacted, and what they had to say. I kept turning the pages.

Collins's theme - how we are now what we once were, no matter how far we travel, physically and emotionally - remains as true today as ever. The statistics so thankfully absent from Collins's book show that, as a general rule, where we are born on the social scale is far and away the most important predictor of where we will die. Education is the one thing that can really make a difference. But because today's state education is so dreadful, especially in poor areas and the inner cities, we have become far less socially mobile than we once were. The story for much of the past century was one of gradual improvement, with working-class children being offered an escape by the grammar school. The snuffing out of that option, by the ideologically driven determination to replace grammar schools with comprehensives, was an explicit piece of social engineering. As such, it has been hugely influential, but in precisely the opposite way to that intended. Instead of promoting mobility, the decline in standards brought about by the deadly combination of monolithic comprehensives and supposedly progressive teaching has made class divisions even more pronounced. Today, more than at any point in the past 75 years, where you are born once again predicts where you will end up.

The Men from the Boys is, inevitably, blokish. The women are little more than ciphers for the story of Adam and Kevin. But Collins is particularly acute in his depiction of the breakdown of Adam's relationship. The novel suffers from the besetting fault of most male-angst fiction: it is written from a decidedly middle-class perspective. Even though the book goes out of its way to be about two working-class lads, at the heart of it is how one of them copes with joining the middle class, and how the other copes with not doing so. But then, Collins is middle class, as will be most of his readers. There's nothing wrong with writing from a position of knowledge. Especially if you run a think-tank.

Stephen Pollard is writing a biography of David Blunkett

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Time to bite back?

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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