Don't Log Off (Radio 4)

Conversations with strangers in cyberspace put Antonia Quirke in a trance.

The presenter and producer Alan Dein usually comes in around this time of year with a new series of Lives in a Landscape, a set of social history documentary programmes in which he coaxes people to speak in such an intimate, insistent way that each edition turns out epic. But this year he presents Don't Log Off (last broadcast: 9 January, 11am), in which he communicates with strangers all over the world - Mongolia, Venezuela, Pakistan, Australia - on Skype over five late nights. His questions to these strangers (who had all responded to Dein's Facebook
appeal "Please call me") were always simple. "What time is it there?"; "Is it dark?"; "How long have you got left on your batteries?"

You could hear the callers relax into the conversations, happy to be boring ("So today I went to the library, then I came back, then I went to the dorm . . ."), feeling neither harried nor overly concerned about the wider implications of this rather peculiar exchange (who is Dein to them? Did they even care? Did they ask him any questions, or were these cut out in the edit?). In many cases the ambient noise was the most thrilling, unifying thing of all. Children bashing each other boredly in the background. A wedding party taking place in the street outside one caller's house in Cairo. A girl in China kept modulating her lilting tone so as to not wake her room-mates. ("So, you're sharing with two other girls? Are they with you now in the same room?" Only Dein - sincere, seemingly artless, with a keenie's voice that gains immediate sentimental support - could get away with these kinds of questions and not sound remotely lascivious.) And in every case, within a few minutes, people were talking about lost love: "At the airport we hug each others deeply and bery long time"; "Man, this is where the story gets heartbreaking. She has, to put it bluntly, put me through hell . . ."

But the ace up the already winning programme's sleeve (2 January) was Jennifer in remote Nova Scotia, a girl with 5,000 friends on Facebook but nobody to address in person, not merely because of geography, but an overweening mistrust. She has, she told Dein, three small children by three different fathers who failed to stick around. Dein sensed her despair and changed the subject. "I hear there's a huge snowstorm coming your way," he said (at such moments, he always gets people to talk about the weather - instantly calming, a question everyone can answer). "Coming my way?" snorted Jennifer, deeply. "Oh my God, it's been here all friggin day." I lost count of the number of times Dein asked, "Is it still snowing?" and she sighed, "Yeah. Still snowing." Like someone driving hundreds of backhands at an unbeatable wall, this incantation had me in a complete trance.

Holiday publication dates meant I couldn't mention until now the best programme of last month. One in a series of The Essay on Radio 3 marking the centenary of Roald Amundsen's arrival at the South Pole, Antarcticans (14-19 December) contained a monologue called "The last huskies" by a former dog driver, John Sweeny, recounting his husky-hauled sledge trip on Antarctica to find his team of dogs a new home 8,000 miles to the north. At one point, he talked about the incongruity of using a satnav on a dog, and other amusements, but soon returned to "the empty feeling at the end of any journey" and his all-consuming certainty that he had failed his team by not finding them proper homes after they were demobbed.

Many of the dogs were set free by their new owners and expected to fend for themselves - but huskies, however hardy and capable, need and love human attention. There were several moments in this tragic account of a hard, lonely trek that brought to mind Jennifer in Nova Scotia, and all the callers to Alan Dein. Sweeny spoke about the British-made dog food kept in isolated depots miles from base that kept fresh for years because of the intense cold. Often he would find notes long ago inserted into the packets by the factory girls in Lancashire, begging for a penfriend. Reading the notes, he recalled his pack howling and singing in the night, "then quite by sudden they would all stop in unison as if controlled by a celestial choirmaster before settling down to sleep. You're never really alone with the huskies."

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Forget Obama

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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