Gwyneth Williams’s Diary: In praise of science, the Trump effect, and the joy of winter walks

One early morning, in the last turning week of the year, my spirits lift at the sight of the dawn ahead; the full moon, low in the sky, gleaming like a silver penny as it falls. 

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It was good to read the physicist Jim Al-Khalili writing about the triumph of science as the vaccines arrive. I remember when we launched The Life Scientific together on Radio 4, having discussed the series before I became controller. “What?! science – and scientists – at 9am, in prime time?” was a common response. How absurd that appears now that scientists seem to have taken over the media. I’m looking forward to joining the Royal Society’s ­Public Engagement Committee, where I hope to help build links between culture and ­science. Surely we’ve needed both to get us through this winter of plague.

Subjective realities

It is hard to believe that less than a year ago I was at the Harvard Kennedy School on a Walter Shorenstein Fellowship. Then, in the primaries, Joe Biden made no visible impact; indeed, he seemed hardly present in the debates, looking down and out and with no hope for the nomination.

Now that he is about to be inaugurated as president, the question for Americans is that once posed by Martin Luther King: “Where do we go from here?” I was invited onto the panel of a seminar at the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard to consider just that. My friends, the cultural and media analyst Kiku Adatto and the political philosopher Michael Sandel, co-lead this cross-disciplinary group, which is remarkably eclectic and relaxed for Harvard.

Speciosa Wandira-Kazibwe, the former vice-president of Uganda (and the first woman to hold this office), spoke critically about the state of American democracy. The sober mood crystallised when the charismatic law professor Randall Kennedy leaned close to the screen, head in his hands, and admitted deep concern about the future. His work focuses on the intersection of racial conflict and legal institutions in America ­– sure, he’s concerned. Laurence Tribe, the Carl M Loeb law professor, was eloquent. He reflected on anger and how this animates contemporary politics. “It seems to define us these days; it’s odd that the most privileged are the most angry.”

The seriousness of the moment was captured best by Cynthia McCauley, the director of a charter school for students with disabilities, located deep in Trump country in the Florida Panhandle. Her co-workers and neighbours still feel the election was stolen and are furious. “Looking at the sun we all see something different,” she said.

It seems, as I pour myself a restorative whisky after the call, that the complex ­reality of deep and enduring difference is only now hitting home. How extraordinary that it has taken so long.

A turbulent year

Politics – Trump, Brexit, Covid – has been inescapable over the past year. At times I have found this unbearable, which has underlined what a privilege it is when politics is not the central factor in everyday life.

When I left apartheid South Africa for Oxford in the 1970s I struggled somewhat to make sense of the seemingly less ­essential struggles of British politics. Engagement may be vital for democracy – but what a relief it was then to be free to think about other things.

[see also: Why the dawning of a new year and a new presidency may not herald a fresh start]

Literary time travel

Time has preoccupied me during these strange months. It has a stark, freshly felt elasticity. Weeks go by in an instant and hours can feel interminable. During my working life at the BBC the driving linear pressures of deadlines and the news cycle were predictably, even boringly, defined. Now I have no idea how long a day might feel, or how short. In “The Summer Day”, the American poet Mary Oliver ­travels forwards in time to cheer us, as these winter days remain dark and chill:

[…] I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

I also take heart from physicists who engage with time in what seems to me, as an arts graduate, an open-minded way. ­Stephen Hawking (one of my Reith ­lecturers) has been a great help in my ­attempt to write a story about a clever child who is not constrained by time.

[see also: How will we remember 2020?]

Simply by outlining the well-known idea that space and time can be warped, and concluding that “rapid space travel and travel back in time can’t be ruled out according to our present understanding”, Hawking ­liberated my heroine to experience the future and the past. Alas, it has not helped me to escape tier four.

A new dawn

It used to be that winter walks in the park were largely for those with dogs and children. Now it seems everyone is there as I push my grandson’s buggy and keep an eye on the dog. Even in the rain the great outdoors has become a liberating, essential place. Small dramas measure out the days: a lost dog, muddy and quivering; trained parrots streaking the sky with rainbow colours as they skim by; photographs of hot days, suffused with that special light, from friends in South Africa, themselves locked down with their own variant of the virus.

One early morning in the last turning week of the year my spirits lift at the sight of the dawn ahead; long, straight lines of red and deep pink seemingly drawn with a ruler, and, as I turn, the full moon, low in the sky, gleaming like a silver penny as it falls. 

Gwyneth Williams is a former controller of BBC Radio 4.

This article appears in the 08 January 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control

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