One foot in the past

Certain places just resonate with history, discovers Nicolette Jones as she traces the steps of Samu

We all know what it is to make a physical journey that is also, in our heads, a journey back in time. Every visit home can be like that. The Queen has just had a second honeymoon in Malta, presumably to return, in her royal head, to 60 years ago. It is also why we visit places of historic interest: to go back in our minds beyond our own pasts. So we walk on Hadrian's Wall imagining ourselves Roman centurions on the alert for glimpses of woad. We stand in the Tower of London at the block where Anne Boleyn was beheaded, and feel the frisson of thinking about being at her execution, or more likely about being her at her execution. And we make pilgrimages to the places associated with our heroes: to Stratford, to Blenheim, to Graceland.

The past seems to saturate certain locations, sometimes whole cities, to such an extent that it is hard to see them now except through a filter of memories and associations. Paris is one of these places, coloured by song, Oxford another, mostly influenced by books (Jude the Obscure, Zuleika Dobson, Brideshead Revisited), New York a third, like being in the movies. As we walk through them we navigate a mental landscape made partly out of fictions and partly out of hindsight.

Some places can't escape a particular moment, especially if it is tragic: Tiananmen Square, Lock erbie, Dunblane, Ground Zero. Life may go on there, with its ordinary joys, but every stranger who visits mourns. The past in such places has power over huge numbers of people.

One effect of historical research, I have discovered, is to turn many more places into timeslips. All sorts of locations become windows on to incidents in the past, some of which very few people ever think about. You don't have to go far to travel in time. I wrote a book about a Victorian who travelled a great deal - not only through Britain, but through continental Europe, Africa, Canada, the United States and Asia. His wife died in Australia. And I may now spend a lifetime in his shoes. Plimsoll's shoes, that is.

Both to research the book and to publicise it, I visited places I knew he had been to. There were plenty, because, to raise consciousness about the plight of sailors obliged to sail in overloaded and unseaworthy ships, Samuel Plimsoll travelled the country for years to address meetings in town halls and squares and theatres. There is hardly a British town that did not hold a Plimsoll rally. Fortunately he was very fond of trains, and would walk the platforms of Victoria Station for recreation rather as other people might go for walks in the park. He would have been happy on an author tour.

In Falmouth, I walked along Green Bay Terrace, where I knew he had visited his sister, trying to identify the house although names had changed, and loitering with retrospective intent in front of a likely contender to gaze from its front gate out over the water, as Plimsoll must have done. (Sea views were a theme. Even his grave in Folkestone had a sea view.)

I knew he had addressed a meeting in the Banqueting Room of Bath Guildhall in 1875. I found the elegant Georgian chamber full of rows of seats for the literary festival. I sneaked into the hall between events and on to the stage, where I stood in the centre, assuming it was the spot from which Plimsoll had addressed his audience. I took a picture. To anyone else, this is a photograph of an empty room. To me, it is an image of a sight through Plimsoll's eyes.

In Bristol, I found the former Grand Hotel; he addressed the crowd here from a balcony since vanished. His coach, which he occupied with his wife and the local MP, was carried by ten sailors from Bristol Temple Meads Station in a parade eighteen hundred-strong that included bands and a float of a rotten "coffin ship". I tried in vain to find the corner of the White Lion Hotel that was until a few decades ago called the Plimsoll Bar; even the staff did not remember. I watched the traffic. On that day in 1873 all other coaches were stopped by the throng. I envisaged the chap who had conducted the crowds and pointed at Plimsoll with an umbrella. I contemplated the uphill gradient and thought of the sailors.

Even close to home, familiar streets now conjure more distant images. Behind the white 1930s facade of the Queen's Hotel on City Square next to the station in Leeds, which I see whenever I go home to my parents (on a different journey back in time), I see the black Gothic of the original building where Plimsoll launched the book that made him famous - Our Seamen: an Appeal. I know that he and I have trod the same pavement. When I walk along the Strand in London, I see Plimsoll's wife, Eliza, marching along it with the Ladies' Committee of the Plimsoll and Seamen's Defence Fund, accompanied by banners and bands, and I relish the sight. And when I celebrated publication of my paperback with lunch at Plimsoll's favourite restaurant, Simpson's-in-the-Strand, I saw him conspiring with his revolutionary friend Havelock Wilson in an adjacent booth. In Islington, there is also a Moroccan restaurant, Maghreb, that used to be Plimsoll's brother's coal office. No amount of camaraderie and couscous can erase a presence.

Behind King's Cross is a viaduct built by Plimsoll that is under threat from developers. I may have to lie down on it when the bulldozers come, wearing my plimsolls printed with Samuel Plimsoll's signature - which, to my sartorially sensitive daughters' dismay, I had made to compound the tribute. Plimsolls were named after him by a sales rep in Liverpool in 1876, because, being rubber below and canvas above, they could be immersed in water safely only up to a certain point, like a merchant ship. The shoes may be his lasting monument, but sites that survive from history can take you further.

Nicolette Jones's "The Plimsoll Sensation" is published by Abacus (£9.99, paperback)

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How New Labour turned toxic

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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