They're out to get you

An intriguing, if paranoid, series probes the loss of our democracy

<strong>The Trap: whatever hap

The documentary-maker Adam Curtis has said that when he's at work on an idea, he spends days sitting in a darkened room watching old news clips, trying to make connections. As a technique, it has served him well. For The Power of Nightmares - in which he posited that al-Qaeda is essentially a creation of western governments who use fear to connect with their populations - he dug up footage of Donald Rumsfeld saying the same things of the USSR as he later did of Osama Bin Laden, an echo that had liberals rubbing their hands in glee.

However, his new series, The Trap: what happened to our dream of freedom (Sunday, BBC2), is so jumpy and feverish, you do wonder if his mole-like antics might finally have taken their toll. In using just about all that has happened in science and economics in the past 50 years to boost a single, spooky argument - we are in a cage! - Curtis is now scarily close to becoming what the neo-cons always said he was: a conspiracy theorist. He needs to get out more.

His new series suggests that the paranoid ideas born of the cold war, inspired by game theory, and pushed by the muscular young analysts of the Rand Corporation, have come to influence political thought pretty much ever since: in Curtis's hands, in fact, this paranoia explains everything from Prozac, to Labour's devotion to "targets", to the invasion of Iraq. Part one (of three) was called: "Fuck you, buddy," a reference to a game invented by the mathematician John Nash, the father of game theory, which was supposed to demonstrate that human beings are isolated, suspicious, selfish units, keener on betrayal than co-operation. This theory, in Curtis's hands, chimed with that of Friedrich von Hayek, who thought altruism had no place in any economic model. You can see where this is going. If self-interest is the best deterrent and incentive there is, who needs the state to referee our activities?

Hmm. So far, so good. I tried not to worry too much about the fact that John Nash is a paranoid schizophrenic and, thus, somewhat unreliable on the matter of who is after whom (and, sure enough, he now thinks his model was too savage). Curtis had conjured some amazing stuff: his interview with Nash was surpassed only by the creepy film he'd found of the psychiatrist R D Laing, looking sinister in a polo neck as he expounded his hunch that even those who care for one another are more interested in "strategising" than simple acts of love. But still, Curtis's rhetorical leaps were unsettlingly giant. One minute he was telling you how psychiatrists developed a way of diagnosing mental disorders based on computerised questionnaires, the next, we were in Downing Street, where Margaret Thatcher was getting excited about the American economist James Buchanan. It was disorientating - to put it mildly - to find that, in the blinking of an eye, the skull-like R D Laing had morphed into Antony Jay, the creator of Yes Minister.

The longer the film went on, the more it became obvious that its huge, sweeping argument didn't add up. Curtis often gets cause and effect mixed up. Worse, he links everything sinisterly to everything else, in an often quite batty way. The visual rhetoric - his use of silent movies, his Fritz Lang-style shots of drones in cubicles - is mesmerising. But it is also corrupting. Give yourself over to these images, and to Curtis's calming narrative voice, and there is the danger that you forget that his argument is one among many; that this stuff is provocative, but not necessarily true. Have we really, as he suggests, sent ourselves mad, by rushing to embrace terms such as obsessive-compulsive disorder? (How he gets from game theory to OCD is just too labyrinthine a journey to explain here.) Of course not. Nor is Prozac, however much it may be over-prescribed, enslaving entire western nations. I'm glad Curtis exists, and that the BBC allows him to get on with his strange, nightmarish projects. It's never a bad thing to be made to think. But in his own stylish way, he's as much of a propaganda merchant as the ideologists he sets out to unmask.

Pick of the week

Mansfield Park
Sunday 18 March, 9pm, ITV1
Billie Piper stars as mousy Fanny Price, which is quite odd.

Life on Mars
Tuesday 20 March, 9pm, BBC1
The long-awaited Camberwick Green episode.

The Trial of Saddam Hussein
Wednesday 21 March, 11.25pm, BBC2
Account of the infamous trial.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trident: Why Brown went to war with Labour

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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