Northern lights

Tom Webber finds a warm welcome and plenty of cod roe at a film festival in Norway's Arctic Circle

The farthest point on the horizon visible from Tromsø harbour is pincered between two hulking stone mountains, shouldering heavy coats of snow. I am here for the first time, entirely ignorant of Norway beyond the anguished wails of its artists and writers for a life not hemmed in by endless fjords. A limp glimmer of God's light blears in through the gap, from somewhere far, far away in the south. This luminous moment will last another hour at most before night descends at lunchtime, and I feel ready to sit in a cinema again. My insides squirm inside me like a bag of snakes. The taste of endless different fishy parts is still coating my mouth: the previous night I was invited to a banquet of cod steaks, cod cheeks, cod roe, cod liver, cod arsehole . . . I am a self-made victim of excessive hospitality.

Tromsø throbs with activity. The 17th International Film Festival is starting up and the city is full of foreign guests. Here to enjoy critics' week, I have been treated royally, handed the resources to make myself dangerously drunk in a succession of bars decorated with stuffed polar bears. Food is laid on at every turn, mainly buckets and buckets of delicious cod. To keep up, I have eaten shovelfuls of the stuff. At each party, I am shown around by droves of beautiful Nor wegian women whose petite frames belie the appetites of polar bears. They stuff in mountains of food with Viking-like gusto. Their appetite for cod in all its forms is matched only by their appetite for culture.

On arrival, I am informed that Tromsø is a great cultural centre. Can this be true? We are 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle, in the final significant conurbation before Norway bends right and stretches off through the wasted tundra of the Sami people towards the North Pole. Everywhere in town the "northernmost" claims of each establishment - from museums, churches, libraries and universities to breweries and Bur ger Kings - are loudly trumpeted. "Cultural centre" would seem to be a hopeful claim.

We are on a tiny island in the centre of a bay, at the bottom of a bowl between mountainous meringue-peaks. Tromsø has a thoroughly frontier-town feel. All life happens on the main street, a lengthy, part-pedestrianised ribbon, lined with two-storey clapboard houses, that appears only recently to have forgotten the echo of horses' hooves.

Norway's northernmost trading and whaling city has long been famous as the "gateway to the Arctic", a beginning for fantastic journeys. Arctic game-hunters, explorers and dreamers have all started out in Tromsø. I meet a London director so taken with the place since he showed a film here, that he has just shot a feature set on the Svalbard archipelago. Another London acquaintance is preparing to be dragged off into the tundra by huskies for six months to deal with his mid-life crisis. Roald Amundsen and Fridjtof Nansen set off from here. Yet concurrent with this frost- bitten history is the city's self-identification for the past 200 years as a "Paris of the north".

In many ways, this is a very Norwegian as piration. Norway has long searched for a self-consciously liberal national identity, particularly since it became incredibly rich after discovering it was sitting on millions of barrels of oil. Part of that drive has involved the establishment of endless cultural festivals. Tromsø alone has a jazz festival, a rock festival and its film festival - coinciding with the day the sun comes back over the horizon and brings to an end what local people call the mørketid, or "dark times". It is a hugely enjoyable, chaotic affair. The city's mayor, Herman Kristoffersen ("Red Herman"), opens the festival with a speech in which he claims that this is a great place to see crap films. I see him, later that night, piling away pints in a bar. Clearly this is a man who does not go to the cinema much.

The programme is extensive and thrilling: alongside international blockbusters and worthy documentaries set in the circumpolar regions, the festival showcases Kill Buljo, a parody of Kill Bill set in the lands of the reindeer-herding Sami. At least the rest of the (mostly student) audience is far more eager to see what is on offer. A packed house sits through to the end of a feature-length Japanese ghost story erroneously supplied without subtitles. And one of the festival's biggest hits is a zombie sheep film from New Zealand.

It is an astonishingly friendly and straightforward occasion, with none of the usual peacocking of directors and producers. I speak to Kjell Fjørtoft, a local writer and activist whose dogged determination seems typical of the local spirit. He began making documentaries about the oppressed Sami people in the Sixties, a time when there were no film labs locally, or film stockists, or editing suites, compounded by the problems of trying to film in a land with little daylight.

At the last party I attend, I am taken outside by one of the many Elisabeths I have met, who waves a white handkerchief at the sky, yoicking "Au-ro-ra bor-e-alis" into the darkness. She promises that her personal magnetism will make it appear. Sure enough, like smoke rising from an invisible chimney, a plume of northern lights streams across the firmament. I stand rapt with a group of foreign journalists. "Come up, come further up," she pleads, and leads us to a hill at the top of the city. She steals a snow-shovel from a block of flats and we take turns to sledge on it down the street.

A Tromsønian in a string vest films us from his front room on a digital camera, then watches it on his flat-screen television, hooting with laughter as Elisabeth films him back through his front window. A Palestinian critic squeals with delight, unable to keep his footing on the ice he has never before experienced. He crashes into me and, still drunk, still in my city shoes, I slither all over the street before landing on my back, staring up at the green-streaked sky.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni v Shia

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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