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Cradles of jewels, spun in an hour

Most spiders eat and remake their webs every day.

The spider and the cleaner work in the same building, not far from each other but solitary in their worlds. The spider spins quietly, tapping and rubbing herself. When the Hoover starts up, she can hear it through her hairs, feeling the sound waves like a wind on her body.

She has eight eyes. She may not see in colour but she’s sensitive to tiny movements. There’s something stately about her panic: no noise, no head movement, simply her legs carry her suddenly into hiding. The cleaner on the other hand shouts and steps backwards: “Weird isn’t it, all those legs, very fragile and quite soft. A spider might measure an inch and a half but the mind sees something huge. I must admit, I’m a little bit unnerved by big spiders. Someone told me they bite. I might just pick them up very quickly – you know, grab them with my hand very softly and fling them out the window. I’d never kill one.”

The cleaner has only two eyes. When he’s not cleaning, he paints detailed pictures of invisible worlds. When he cleans, he keeps his eyes tuned to the task. He sees dust, mud, smears, nail clippings, spillages, hairs in plugholes, unpaid bills, kicked-off shoes, all the secret debris of a human. At a certain point he glances at the ceiling and sees cobwebs: “Ah yes, what should you do about webs? Old webs I’ll get rid of, they’re just big balls or twists of dust; and kitchen webs, the more you leave them (and I’m talking years here) the more the whole place becomes a congealment of grease. But fresh webs – I tend to take one and leave another. I make a balancing decision. I try not to get anxious about the ethics of it. There’s the issue of flies, of course. Not hygienic but I have saved flies on occasion. But those webs, when you see them outdoors they’re like cradles of jewels between the gorse – it seems so sad to damage them.”

Webs are made mostly of spaces. They break easily. They barely exist. They belong to the category of half-things: mist, smoke, shrouds, ghosts, membranes, retinas or rags; and they quickly fill up with un-things: old legs and wings and heads and hollow abdomens and body bags of wasps.

Outdoors, where their diagrams are more defined, they present themselves as dazzling displays of maths, as if the earth had spent all night noting down her rotations. In fact it takes less than an hour to make one.

Spoke to spoke

You need eight spinning glands, each capable of producing a slightly different kind of silk. First you release a floating thread, which catches on a surface. Then you spin a Y-shape from its centre and add a set of non-sticky spokes, never more than a step-width apart. As you spin the sticky cross-struts, you have to move carefully from spoke to spoke, so as not to get stuck, like a cleaner cleaning himself to the far side of a kitchen, trying not to touch the wet tiles. By the end of the day, the threads will be covered in dust. Most spiders eat and remake their webs every night.

“It’s amazing, the power of them spinning. You see that thing rotating really quickly. If I could just get a message to the spider to move off, that’s the real way to deal with them. I did it with moles once. But when I’m cleaning I just don’t have time. Sometimes I use the Hoover extension but that’s no good because it clings to the tube and you’ve only got one sucking action. I prefer feather dusters, because they’re light and easy and I just push them up and twizzle them round and it’s gone . . .”

Alice Oswald was talking to Simon Prince.

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

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special

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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