AKG-IMAGES/NORTH WIND PICTURE ARCHIVES
Show Hide image

The Silk Roads rise again

The ancient network across central Asia shaped trade and culture for centuries. Now, as its economy slows, China is building a new bridge from east to west.

On 6 September 2013, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, left the G20 summit of major economies in St Petersburg and began a tour of central Asia. His first stop was Astana, in Kazakhstan. On arrival, he told his counterpart, Nursultan Nazar­bayev, that both countries had benefited from good friendship – they were “as close as lips and teeth” – and that he looked forward to discussing “major international and regional issues of mutual interest”.

What these issues were, and their geo­political significance, became clear the following day in a speech at Nazarbayev University. The time had arrived, Xi announced, for China and the nations of central Asia to reflect on their long, shared past and to formulate plans to intensify economic co-operation, facilitate trade and remove barriers. It was time, he said, to build a “New Silk Road”.

With that statement of intent – soon backed by action – from the leader of the world’s second-biggest economy, it was evident that the axis on which the globe spins was slowly turning back to where it lay for millennia. Scholars, artists and merchants once flocked to cities such as Bukhara and Samarkand (in modern Uzbekistan), to cosmopolitan centres such as Baghdad and Basra (modern Iraq), Tabriz and Isfahan (Iran), or to Merv, a city in what is now Turkmenistan and which in the 10th century Arab and Persian geographers described as “the mother of the world”.

This network of countries, stretching from the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean to the mountain ranges of the Himalaya, Tian Shan and Pamir, is rich is commodities that help power and feed the world: oil and gas, rare-earth minerals, wheat and corn. Yet it remains a region we pay scant attention to and know little about. If we are to make sense of the past, the present and the future, we should be looking less to the West and the East and much more to the bridge that links the two. The Silk Roads once dominated global trade and cultural exchange. Now they are rising again.

***

The term “Silk Roads”, or Seidenstraßen, was coined in 1877 by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen. It denoted the mesh of cities, oases and routes criss-crossing Asia, linking the Pacific with the Mediterranean, and the Red Sea, Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean with Russia, Scandinavia and Europe. Along these networks the world’s great religions rose and spread. Competition was intense, requiring architectural statements to support claims of divine connection – as with the now destroyed statues of the Buddha at Bamiyan in Afghanistan, or the 40 Buddhist monasteries that ringed Kabul, one of which had pavements made of onyx, marble walls, golden doors and floors of solid silver, “while in the hallway there was a golden idol as beautiful as the moon, seated on a magnificent bejewelled throne”, as one observer wrote.

Joining the evangelists on these routes across Asia were military leaders, merchants and learned men. Modern Chinese words derived from Persian and Arabic, such as bosi, meaning a precious object (literally “from Persia”), are evidence of the booming markets and wealth in the Muslim world in the early Middle Ages, as vast tax revenues flowed towards Baghdad and the great cities of Mesopotamia and central Asia. Scholars were drawn by systems of patronage that gathered the best minds to work on pure and applied mathematics, science, optics and medicine, while great craftsmen found an insatiable demand for their wares. A place such as Rayy, not far from modern Tehran, was so glorious as to be considered “the bridegroom of the earth”. Cities, strung like pearls across the spine of Asia, flourished long after the discovery of the Americas: the moment usually presumed to have marked the true start of the ascent of the West.

In fact, the expeditions that crossed the Atlantic from the end of the 15th century, coupled with the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope by the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama at roughly the same time, served to strengthen rather than weaken the Silk Roads. Precious metals taken from the Aztecs and Incas were moved through Europe and then on to trading stations such as Manila, in the Philippines, to pay for luxuries of all kinds – from ceramics and textiles to pearls and curios, such as the capes that were brought back from the East for the Medici dukes in Florence.

Europe’s golden age was mirrored, initially, by a flourishing across the Silk Roads, as China, India, Persia and central Asia reaped the benefits of trade. Descendants of the great central Asian warlord Tamberlane became empire-builders, expanding south from the Ferghana Valley (at the crossroads of modern-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) through Afghanistan and into India. Monuments were constructed by the new central Asian “Mughal” overlords in the  classic central Asian style, such as Humayun’s  tomb in Delhi and the Taj Mahal at Agra.

Europe’s efforts to take control of the Silk Roads networks led to a change in attitudes to those in the East, who went from being trading partners to people who could be divided, exploited and dominated. The likes of the East India Company established and expanded their trading positions jealously and ruthlessly, making obscene fortunes for their officers. The interests of those who ran and owned the business were everything; those who got in the way were of no consequence. In the early 1770s famine ravaged Bengal, killing millions after the East India Company sharply raised land taxes and cleared fields to make way for the cultivation of opium poppies. When Robert Clive, a leading figure in the East India Company, was called to answer questions in parliament, he spoke like the chief executive of a distressed bank: his priorities had been to protect the interests of shareholders, not those of the local population; surely he deserved no criticism for doing his job.

That the European traders had thought only of enriching themselves as the local population starved to death made a strong impression on those living in colonies elsewhere, above all in North America. Leaflets distributed in Pennsylvania described the East India Company as an institution “well versed in Tyranny, Plunder, Oppression, and Bloodshed”, a symbol of all that was wrong with Britain itself. If Bengalis could starve to death, why not those living in the colonies? It was not hard for the Founding Fathers to conclude that it was time to go it alone. Events on one side of the globe had an effect on the other.

Anxieties about control of the Silk Road region helped shape the geopolitics of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Keeping India secure and protecting the strong trading position that had been built up in China became central strands of British foreign policy. In the hundred years after 1815 and the Battle of Waterloo, it was Russian ambitions in Asia that London feared most. The tsar’s frontiers rolled ever further southwards and eastwards, swallowing up territory that threatened the Persian Gulf and advancing deep into central Asia. This set nerves on edge in London and Delhi. Suddenly Russia was at the gates of India, with the protective buffer of independent khanates reduced to what Lord Curzon called “the thinness of a wafer”.

The answer was to divert Russian attention to its western flank, where relations with a strident and ambitious Germany were sacrificed. Any improvement in relations with the kaiser were out of the question, noted the foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, in 1910, if they came at the expense of Russia. The consequences of a hostile Russia, another senior British official noted, were far worse than an unfriendly Germany. As Europe drifted to war in 1914, it was the fear of what would happen in the East that haunted British diplomats. If we fail to stand by Russia, Sir George Clerk cabled from Constantinople, as the tsar’s troops began to mobilise on the border with Austria-Hungary, “our very existence as an Empire will be at stake”.

It was not just India that was at risk; so was trade with China, four-fifths of which was carried on British ships at the turn of the 20th century. The importance of Persia, too, as a central point along the Silk Roads networks was magnified by the discovery of oil in 1908 by a British firm, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which eventually became BP. Historical attention usually focuses on the war in Europe, but the British authorities at the time kept close tabs on events thousands of miles away. According to the cabinet secretary, gaining control of Persia’s oil, and the suspected abundant supply in neighbouring Mesopotamia, was nothing less than “a first-class war aim”.

Thus began a century of astonishing short-sightedness as countries of Europe, and then the US and the USSR, pursued economic interests and geopolitical ideals at the expense of local populations. Reactions to heavy-handed interference became increasingly aggressive and violent, with anti-western rhetoric a consistent theme: from the furious rejection of the West by Ayatollah Khomeini and his successors to the anger of the former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who now talks of the western intervention in Afghanistan as “a betrayal”, and on to the grotesque violence of Islamic State and al-Qaeda. The defiance of Vladimir Putin, too, whether regarding the deployment of troops in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea or in the recent military intervention in Syria; likewise, the point-blank refusal of China as well as many of the states in central Asia to engage in dialogue about human rights stands as a rejection of the “enlightened” western way of doing things. Across the Silk Roads, from east to west, north to south, the message is the same: the West should disengage from ill-thought-through attempts to spread views that it treats as objective truths; it should forget its mantra of liberation and democratisation – and mind its own business.

***

While governments in North America and Europe attempt to respond to events as they happen, from the Arab spring to the refugee crises, China has been thinking about the long game. In a series of important public statements, backed by action on the ground, the Chinese leadership has begun to build friendships, cement alliances and secure resources that will be crucial for its growth, which has slowed in recent years from 10 per cent to less than 7 per cent. This marks an important change of attitudes, following a century characterised by upheaval, introspection and long periods of self-imposed isolation. As Xi Jingping signalled in Kazakhstan two years ago, China is becoming intensely keen on emphasising the historical, economic and cultural links with its neighbours, evoking a common heritage in central as well as south-east Asia.

Speaking in Astana, Xi Jinping noted that the peoples who live in the region that connects east and west have co-operated, coexisted and flourished despite “differences in race, belief and cultural background” for 2,000 years. It is a “foreign policy priority”, he said, “for China to develop friendly co-operative relations with the central Asian countries”.

To do that, China is committing formidable resources to infrastructure investments in a web that resembles the Silk Roads of old and is known in China as “One Road, One Belt”. With Chinese energy demands alone forecast to triple by 2030, signing large contracts to buy oil from Russian producers has been a priority, as has been winning the rights to develop wells in Afghanistan and in the Afghan-Tajik basin, believed to contain 1.8 billion barrels of crude. Chinese miners have been pursuing concessions for copper, bauxite and rare-earth mines across the heart of Asia. Networks of pipelines, railways and deep-water ports – as at Bandar Abbas in Pakistan – designed to transport these resources have been built or are under construction.

To secure deals, the Chinese have used a soft touch, committing to share profits and fund educational projects. Companies such as ZTE and Huawei have set up telecommunication networks, bringing 3G to the steppes and superfast broadband to the cities of the Silk Roads – at prices that western corporations decry as being commercially uncompetitive, but which win goodwill in the region.

As minerals, fossil fuels and other commodities flow in one direction, so hard currency flows in the other. This brings challenges in a region of autocratic, often repressive regimes where power and assets are in the hands of the few. In Turkmenistan gleaming new tourist facilities at Avaza, on the eastern coast of the Caspian Sea, built at a reported cost of $2bn, stand almost empty, while new airports, presidential palaces and winter sports arenas that are part of a construction programme worth ten times as much bring little benefit to the 60 per cent of the population that is unemployed.

Yet something profound is happening. China’s own centre of gravity has begun to swing westwards, to Xinjiang, a large autonomous region in the north-west that borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. Economic growth there has recently outstripped the rest of China, and tourism to cities such as Zhangye, in Gansu Province, has risen elevenfold in the past four years alone.

One reason for this is the huge investment into railway lines fanning out along the Silk Roads to connect to the Indian subcontinent, the Caspian, the heart of Russia, and on to a rail freight terminal at Duisburg in Germany. A recent report in the New York Times noted that although only 2,500 containers were shipped by rail from China to Europe in 2012, 7.5 million are expected to travel along that route by 2020. The speed and cost of getting Chinese-made goods to market has convinced companies such as Foxconn, an electronics manufacturer that is a crucial part of Apple’s supply chain, and Hewlett-Packard to move from the Pacific coast of China to Chengdu and Chongqing, which are closer to China’s western border and to the Silk Roads.

It was no accident that George Osborne visited Xinjiang on his recent trade mission, nor that he was congratulated by Chinese state media for his “diplomatic etiquette” for not “raising the human rights issue”. As Jim O’Neill, the former Goldman Sachs economist who coined the term “Brics” and who now advises George Osborne, told the Financial Times: “We shouldn’t go round the world saying, ‘Oi, you should do exactly what we think.’ Because it might not be right and, guess what, if you do that you won’t be very successful in your commercial objectives.”

***

To many people, the Silk Roads countries, especially those of central Asia, are perceived as a sort of “Wild East”, full of sinister characters. In Turkmenistan, a giant golden statue of the former president Saparmurat Niyazov revolves to face the direction of the sun. In Kazakhstan, President Nazarbayev was re-elected in 2011 after winning nearly 96 per cent of the vote. The family of his counterpart in Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, was privately compared by US diplomats with “the Corleones of Godfather fame” in leaked diplomatic cables.

And yet, there are good reasons why we must engage with these nations. For one thing, the energy resources of countries across central Asia are large enough to affect global oil and gas prices (it is estimated that there is more oil under the Caspian Sea than off the North American continental shelf). Then there are the rare-earth minerals that are essential for components in satellites, iPhones, laptops and cancer screening machines. Even the wheat fields that run across southern Russia, Ukraine and the steppes from the Black Sea as far as Mongolia have an importance far beyond the region: during the crisis in Ukraine in 2014, the global price of wheat shot up.

Luxury hotel groups have opened up all over the region, from Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan to Baku in Azerbaijan and Urumqi in China, where Hilton Hotels & Resorts has just opened its first property. As the ink was drying on a putative agreement between Tehran and Washington on nuclear issues (energy and weapons), McDonald’s advertised for potential franchisees in Iran. British private schools, too, have set up satellite operations in the Gulf, China and Kazakhstan, where there is a choice of two campuses of Haileybury College alone. Tony Blair has been offering advice and public words of support there (in return for a reported fee of £8m a year).

In this new era, the West’s influence is waning, as is its credibility. The disastrous military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, coupled with the confused and ineffective response to the civil war in Syria, are bad enough. Barriers being erected – in some cases literally – at the frontiers of Europe provide a powerful indication of the passing of an age, one in which foreigners and outsiders are less welcome, in which tolerance and compassion are replaced by fear, anxiety and seclusion.

Yet, to the East, the world is slowly opening up again, as it did in the glory days of the old Silk Roads.

Peter Frankopan’s book “The Silk Roads: a New History of the World”, is published by Bloomsbury

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The 18th-century Prime Minister

Show Hide image

“Senior year burns brightly. There is a vividness in worlds coming to an end”: Lady Bird’s aesthetic of memory

“The way time rushes forward is a theme of the film, one scene tumbling into the next. We can never hold on to it.”

Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is acutely aware of time. She knows that her trip with her mother to a Californian college and back took 21 hours and five minutes, the same amount of time it takes to listen to The Grapes of Wrath, in full, on cassette. She knows that Alanis Morisette wrote ‘Hand in My Pocket’ in “only ten minutes”. She knows that, tragically, UC Davis, the state college she is accepted into, is just thirty minutes away from her house – “less, if you’re driving fast.”

She is less sure on when the “normal time” to touch a penis or have sex is – and seems, as she reaches for a more cultured, more independent, more meaningful future, quite unaware that she is rapidly passing through a distinct and special period of her own life. “I wish I could live through something,” she sighs, staring out of the car window at her hometown of Sacremento as it literally and metaphorically rushes behind her, into her past.

Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is a coming-of-age film: like most works that fall under that broad label, it is more nostalgically concerned with the age its protagonist is forced to leave behind than the age she is coming into. It’s a loving portrait of Lady Bird’s senior year, told in a series of stylised, rose-tinted vignettes: brief shots of girls slow dancing with each other at themed dances, of parents cheering at graduation and school plays, of boys’ names inked onto walls like a secret tattoo. “I only ever write from a place of love,” Gerwig (who both wrote and directed the film, which stars Saoirse Ronan as the titular central character) has told Vulture. .

At a glance, the structure of Gerwig’s film is deeply traditional: it covers one school year in full, from Lady Bird’s first day of senior year to her heading off to college. It’s a formula that many high school movies rely on: from coming-of-age films like Juno (which is interspersed with title cards reading “Spring”, “Summer”, and so on), Mean Girls (documenting Cady’s journey from outcast on the first day of the year to crowned queen bee at the Spring Fling to fully-functioning human on the first day of the next school year) and The Perks of Being A Wallflower, to franchises like High School Musical and Harry Potter. TV series, too, often build each season around an academic year: from Freaks and Geeks to Gilmore Girls to Gossip Girl: is it any wonder that K. Austin Collins, in The Ringer, writes that Lady Bird is “packing an entire TV season’s worth of material into under two hours”?

It’s not surprising that cultural representations of youth are constructed around the fundamental timetable of most teenagers’ lives. As Gerwig explains in Lady Bird’s production notes, “When you are a teenager in America, you organize your life around academic years: Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Senior. It always made sense to me to tell the story of the whole year. The rituals of the year, the circularity.”

So Lady Bird passes through many scholastic events during her story (the first day back and the final graduation ceremony; the fall musical and the spring play; the ice breaking dance and the last prom). Gerwig’s shooting script is segmented by directions in bold: “SECOND SEMESTER” (p. 50), “SUMMER (AGAIN)” (p.100).

But even as Gerwig speaks of her awareness of the organised, ritualistic structure of a school year, she does so with fluidity. Her conception of time is much less rigid, than, say, JK Rowling’s meticulous plans for her plots to be precisely timed to interact with Halloween feasts, Christmas and Easter holidays, Quidditch matches and final exams. “The way time rushes forward is a theme of the film, one scene tumbling into the next. We can never hold onto it,” Gerwig continues. “It is something beautiful that you never appreciated and ends just as you come to understand it.”

“Senior year burns brightly and is also disappearing as quickly as it emerges. The way we end where we began. It is a spiralling upwards. There is a certain vividness in worlds that are coming to an end.”

When Gerwig was first discussing Lady Bird with her cinematographer, Sam Levy, she told him she wanted the film to “look and feel like a memory”. Together, they collated images they were drawn to and reproduced them using a cheap photocopier, repeating the process several times, until the pictures were distressed and distanced from their originals. This was, for them, “the aesthetic of a memory”. They deliberately used older lenses to try and recreate this effect on screen: specifically combining the Alexa Mini digital camera with Panavision lenses from the Sixties and Seventies. “We wanted the colour to look like a memory of a time, not to be literally exactly how the world looks,” Gerwig adds in her production notes, explaining that she and Levy based their colour palette on the paintings of Wayne Thiebaud and Gregory Kondos.

She wanted each shot to be presentational and specifically framed, “like a Medieval triptych”. “We talked about always having a sense of the proscenium,” she adds, “of the film unfolding in a series of placed scenes like Stations of the Cross presents the story of the Passion.”

We see Lady Bird in her school chapel on the first day of term, her chin rested on linked fingers, her eyes raised to a biblical tableau high above her. We see her shot upside down, her head on a paisley carpet, giggling while chomping down on un-consecrated wafers with her best friend, Julie. We see her lying on the grass of a rose garden at night with her first boyfriend, Danny, shouting to the stars. We see her in just a towel, with wet her, talking to her mother about her father’s depression in an unusually small voice. We see her sat in the back of her parent’s car, on her way to the airport as she leaves for college, while the sun sets. Such shots are imbued with the blush and ceremony that we retroactively ascribe to firsts and lasts, and to moments that acquire increased significance only in memory.

It is also the specificity of Lady Bird’s 2002 setting, with references as wide-reaching as Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me A River’, clove cigarettes, Alanis Morisette and post-9/11 paranoia, that enables  it to achieve the status of memory for an adult audience. So, too, does its attention to the details of teenage life – a world of casts and nosebleeds as much as college applications and driving tests.

Lady Bird has been praised in several reviews (including those in the Guardian, the LA Times, The Atlantic and the AV Club) for its specificity, authenticity and sincerity. One of Gerwig’s other films, Frances Ha, opens with a montage that includes a few seconds of Gerwig, as Frances, reading Lionel Trilling’s work of literary criticism, Sincerity and Authenticity. “To praise a work of literature by calling it sincere,” Frances reads aloud, “is now at best a way of saying that, although it may be given no aesthetic or intellectual admiration –’”. We cut to a different moment. “Basically, the question she’s setting up is, what do we mean by sincerity, and does it diminish the thing?” Gerwig reflects to Vulture. “I’ve always felt like it heightens it.”  In Lady Bird, Gerwig attempts to unite deliberately stylised, artful aesthetics with an emotional authenticity and sincerity.

“I kept saying that I wanted to feel as if the film was ‘over there’”, she says in the production notes. “I always wanted to feel the frame and to feel the medium of cinema.”

Lady Bird is almost entirely composed of very short scenes – most are under a minute long. Some are mere flashes: Lady Bird screaming in the street after kissing Danny for the first time, brief glimpses of rehearsals for the school musical, or the three-second, three-shot-long scene of Lady Bird getting her cast removed while her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalfe) watches on. Many of them are non-essential for the plot: fleeting shots see Lady Bird wandering the streets near her home, working lazily in local cafés and supermarkets, cheating on a math final. “I wanted to bring in moments, pieces of B-roll, to create an emotional memory,” Nick Hoey, the film’s editor explains, in language strikingly similar to Gerwig’s. “The idea of things tumbling forward and things you hold on to.” The result is a film almost built out of a sequence of images.

Hoey “understood the tone we were going for,” Gerwig explains in the notes – the idea that the film was like an up-tempo pop song that you only realise is sad when someone does a slowed-down cover version. “Houy understood the lightness I wanted, the way the film would be frothy and exciting like waves breaking on a beach, but that then suddenly the undertow would become apparent and before you know it, you are in much deeper waters than you expected.” Nick Hoey insists that Gerwig’s script already “had editing built into it”.

Only three scenes are over three minutes long; two bookend the film. The first is the opening car ride that sees Marion and Lady Bird laugh, cry and scream with rage at each other, as Lady Bird expresses her desire to live a life outside of Sacramento, “where culture is”, and Marion wonders aloud, “How did I raise such a snob?”

The last is the scene where a desperately hungover, brand new to New York Christine stumbles across a church on a Sunday morning, slips in to hear the choir, and slips out again to call Marion. Interspersed with shots of both Marion and Lady Bird driving, it calls back to the opening, collapsing the time between. “Did you feel emotional the first time that you drove in Sacramento?” she asks her mother over a voicemail. “I did and I wanted to tell you, but we weren’t really talking when it happened.” She speaks of this experience as though it is a long-distant memory (and in one sense it is), but it could only have been a few weeks ago. In terms of viewing minutes, Lady Bird only passed her driving test ten minutes earlier – the distance this memory is held at encourages us to read much of the film as a memory, as though Christine has been looking back at her senior year from a future vantage point all along. Lauren Oyler argues in The Baffler that Lady Bird, with its precocious lead and loving tone, is essentially regressive nostalgia for infantilised grown-ups, popular because it allows audiences to “rewrite their adolescences from adulthood”. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Christine has been doing this all along.

The longest scene, at nearly four minutes, comes in the middle of the film, when Lady Bird loses her virginity to the alternative, posturing, popular Kyle (Timothee Chalamet). It’s a disappointing experience for Lady Bird, and one that punctures some of her own fantasies – she spends much of the film before this point trying to insert herself amongst the cooler, more sophisticated crowd of Kyle and his friend Jenna, and the time after it turning back to the friends she almost left behind. It also represents a point at which the narrative accelerates. Oyler writes that “from here, the pace becomes curiously quick.” While the remaining scenes are of a broadly similar length to the preceding ones, Lady Bird’s remaining time at school, which contains several key milestones, does seem to fly by. Her prom, graduation, driving test, 18th birthday, and college acceptance letter arrive in five consecutive scenes that, together, span less than eight minutes. Her entire final summer at home is a blur that lasts less than ten minutes in total.

Oyler argues that this speed is to enable the film “to tie up loose ends”. But the exponential passage of time in Lady Bird speaks to a larger experience of adolescence. Being a teenager feels both impossibly permanent and terrifyingly transient – then, suddenly, it’s over before you can process it. Many of my adolescent experiences were characterised by the pre-empting of future nostalgia, experiencing a moment not in a state of blissful ignorance, but with the awareness that it was formative, that I would look back at it in years to come through a hazy yellow filter – even if, at the same time, I held a quiet, unreasonable belief that I would remain a teenager forever. In the production notes, Greta Gerwig calls this “the pre-sentiment of loss, of ‘lasts’”. She explains she wanted to achieve “that sense of time slipping away, the future charging into the present, the bonds of childhood as only living on in memory.” In the words of film critic Simran Hans, Lady Bird’s “joyful, forward-rushing narrative rhythm captures the feeling of adolescence ending before it has barely begun.”

All that said, it’s hard to watch Lady Bird and actually envy its protagonist. As much as her teenage years are sanctified, they are not airbrushed. “It’s not a highlight reel—the movie is full of embarrassment,” Collins writes. Embarrassment, anger, shame, anxiety – the intense pain and awkwardness of being an almost-adult forced to still live like a child, or a child pretending to live like an almost-adult, is plain. “Whenever I feel nostalgic,” Tavi Gevison writes in The Infinity Diaries, “I try to remember that what I really want is not to go back, but what I have now: the image, the memory.” Lady Bird doesn’t encourage us to long for our teenage years back, but it does encourage us to cherish our own memories, to frame them with ceremony, to feel our roots.

“I thought the best way to write a love letter,” Greta Gerwig says in the production notes of Lady Bird – a love letter to a place, and a time, and a way of being, “is to frame it with a character who doesn’t realise she loves it – until it’s in the rear view mirror.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The 18th-century Prime Minister