Book Review: Cartes Postales from Greece

I dug out Victoria Hislop’s 2016 collection of short stories from my unread bookshelf to take on our recent trip to Crete. Popularly described as one of the UK’s most ardent philhellenes, and these days at least a part-time resident of Crete, Hislop is a well-qualified companion with whom to discuss – over the written page – modern Greece and its tragedies, as well as its heroism, its lyricism and its love of songs and stories.

The stories in Cartes Postales – quite simply, postcards – were mostly written while Hislop was travelling in Greece, alongside Alexandros, a photographer whose images lavish the pages. They were not taken to illustrate, but to act as a prompt with Hislop tending to spin her stories out of the things that they both saw on the journey. Some of the latter are new, some are modern twists on old stories (the Venus di Milo makes an appearance as does, from a Cretan perspective, Icarus and Daedalus), others are founded in the continuousness of the search for meaning in natural signs with which to prompt human decisions at various crossroads (such as at the Oracle at Delphi). As such, most of the stories have a timeless appeal, even if imbued through a modern lens, not to say a glass of wine.

As in any short story collection, some of them work (Je Reviens being a particularly good example, twisting the fortunes of the people who inhabit modern Greece with the threads of its recent past; while Et In Arcadio Ego is menacing and disturbing), while others do not (Air on a G String is filled with the dreadful romanticism that Hislop seems to have rescued from the floor of Richard Curtis‘s writing room). We encompass otherwise the macabre (Honeymoon), the elegiac (Man On A Mountaintop) and the dramatic (The Boy In The Silvery Suit).

The difference to most normal collections are that the short stories are all linked, all being tales told to a traveller in tavernas, guest houses and in town squares. The traveller in question is not Hislop, except perhaps by some kind of displacement, but Anthony, a man on the run from a failed relationship but whose process of letting go entails the sending of a series of postcards, and finally a notebook, from each stopping point to the address of his lost lover, who has since moved away. There, they are received instead by Ellie, a young woman at something of a crossroads herself; and, intrigued, she decides to head for Greece. After that, well, Richard Curtis may yet be on the phone.

So here we have the first problem: the conceit of the structural idea is bold, but its execution in practice is breathlessly, remorselessly romantic in tone. The contrast between this and many of the stories is sharp, but the effect is not interesting since the romanticism of what is essentially the plot – and a rather thin one, at that – both undermines and subtracts from the stories themselves.

The second problem is a minor, practical one: Anthony is on the run but spends the year finishing writing a book on the sculptures of the Cyclades which, as it transpires, actually plays little role in his re-building of his sense of self. The difficulty is, he spends no time in the Cyclades on his journey, which is based virtually entirely on the mainland, and precious little of that in Athens – and, even there, he doesn’t appear to go to the museum where Cycladic art has been stolen re-located. Perhaps his research notes were all complete but, if it was me, I’d be wanting to visit one, probably both, and regularly, as I was finalising my work. Consequently, the threading of the stories relies on a hook which is both extremely insecure and which, ultimately, actually has little meaning.

Thirdly, the ageless appearance of the stories is fine at a superficial level, but it leaves the characters on the page inhabiting a yesterday world. This affects particularly the women characters who are disappointingly realised, being usually young girls, femme fatales or old crones (while the men are, although not as ubiquitously, portrayed either as weak-minded old fools or young, strong and silent types). There is nothing new about such an objectification of women (and, indeed, men) in literature, although I choose to read modern women writers to escape that sort of thing. It’s not as though Greece – and specifically Crete – has no examples of strong women, both in revolution and in modern times, on which Hislop could draw but the collection here ignores those in favour of sexist stereotypes. Easier, for sure, but ultimately a lot less challenging. I would have liked to see Hislop go a lot further in the direction where Et In Arcadio Ego seemed to be taking her.

In this yesterday world, modern Greece does appear, but only in the linking sections between the stories whereas a collection which really wanted to tell a story of the modern realities of the country would have made the old stories resonate in a more contemporary fashion with some of the photographs. All we are left with, therefore, is a flavour, a taste of the Greece of kafenion and zacharoplasteion – but one drawn more from the Greece of the travel pages than the reality of the modern stories told, to take just one example, by the graffiti-laden walls which we could see even in downtown, and somewhat sleepy, Rethymnon on our visit. The impression is thus of a throwback; of a recall of, and desire for, happier times; and, ultimately, of somewhat middle-class concerns and mores and standards.

Even for holiday reading, I’m looking for a bit more than that.

So, as this is also a bit of a postcard, as well as a review, here’s some graffiti on a bit of shabby house. I’m a little nervous about capturing graffiti in a foreign language because impressions can mislead and my Greek is, well, holiday Greek. Here, however, I think the loose translation would be ‘Under Heavy Manners’. And absolutely right, too.

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Gig review: Aly and Phil in our village

It must be a bit odd for musicians to come to a gig and find the dressing room/green room absolutely front of house and on open display as the punters arrive to take their seats. Nevertheless, this was no ordinary gig as Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham, legends on the international traditional music scene for generations and with musical palmares the length of not just one arm but both outstretched, and uncrooked as a musician’s would usually be, arrive in Iochdar village hall, down at the end of my road, to play my birthday gig as part of their 2019 Scottish tour.*

They were here last year, too, although for one reason or another I missed it then (I do have a regular complaint that events on these islands tend not to be advertised well here unless you’re on that bookface thing). I had wondered why such stars – musical heroes of mine since the traditional scene exploded into my musical education in the 1980s – would play precisely here, and not least (still) without a new record to promote: partly for the reasons of time and effort involved in getting here and in making it pay (I guess it doesn’t – but that’s probably beside the point), but more importantly because we don’t have a strong fiddle tradition on the islands (though we do of course have a box one). (Today, down in Am Politician on Eirisgeidh for a birthday dinner, it appeared from talking to the publican that Phil had turned up last year, box in hand, for an inpromptu evening session: learning new tunes is, naturally, the lifeblood of any new musician.) There is, however, a sort of family connection with Uist and Benbecula for Phil, and both people who had maintained the connection were of course in the audience and got a shout out as well as a dedication from the stage. It was indeed that sort of gig.

Aly and Phil have been playing together for 33 years and with a background in music stretching back for fifteen years before that: Aly in Boys of the Lough and Phil in Silly Wizard. Both have the sort of status that entails writing tunes for commissions, both for paid jobs in TV productions and for other famous musicians, and having tunes written for them, but they still both enjoy each other’s company as well as have a key role in providing the active emotional support for each other that we all need.

With a musical heritage this long, picking a list of the sets of tunes you want to play is both tough and easy – tough because selecting any one track leaves a load of other similar-sounding combinations behind; easy because, with an appreciative not to say reverential crowd, you know that any selection you can make will go down well. So, the tunes have to fit and to deliver coherent sets which does the job of a tune-playing band but, not least, to the satisfaction of the musos themselves: stirring people in some way, playing on their heartstrings and chiming with their emotions. Here, we had the hits – Fairy Dance to close (from which the picture below is taken © Ella Wronecka – thank you!), with Hangman’s Reel (the theme tune from the BBC’s ‘Down Home‘ series, which properly introduced me to Aly Bain) and Jean’s Reel (likewise for Phil Cunningham, and fondly remembered by Andy Kershaw as the track he’d seen Cunningham absolutely shred after sinking about six pints; and the tune he’s apparently played at every one of his gigs ever).

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With Aly seriously ill in hospital earlier this year ahead of a triple heart bypass, and with a consequent warm-hearted expression of appreciation for our NHS, the first half – while mixed in with faster-paced sets – took on an elegiac tone, with ‘So Long, Liam’ an absolute stand-out. Other airs were similarly beautifully and breath-takingly sustained, drawing out the audience’s emotion right to the length of the bow, and for a brief second beyond. The second set, with the feature songs mentioned above, tended to be faster but still interleaved the more complex rhythms of the boys’ connection with Swedish musicians with airs and waltzes and, in some sets, bravely transitioning from waltzes to reels within the same set. Just the two of them on the stage but, with a bit of skullduggery, and no little skill, this was a whole band of fired-up musicians up there. All interspersed with lengthy introductions to the tunes which served to get the breath back, led largely by Phil, featuring humour (including a wonderful tale about playing for the Queen at Balmoral (here, for a wee flavour) which might well explain why the honours are still lost in the post, boys), shaggy dog stories, a fair amount of sly self-references, technical notes about the music and rhythms, and anecdotes drawn from their astonishing yet very human musical trajectories and careers, this was a right proper ceilidh.

Which brings me to the one slightly downwards note: the gig was wonderfully organised by Mary and the Ceòlas team, with the aid of the Talla an Iochdar committee volunteers, but it was disappointing to see the hall laid out for a fully sit-down gig. Now, traditional music isn’t only for the old’uns and it was great to see some junior enthusiasts too, and people who are, well, (still) older than me were the core of the audience so we need some chairs. But this music is made for dancing and some audience participation via a bit of an opportunity to get up offa that thing and show a few moves might well have improved the night even more by dint of giving a bit more feedback to the musicians. Foot-tapping and sincere, warm and grateful applause gets you so far but nothing tugs a musician’s sensibility more, or drives them further and faster, than people moving and grooving to the music they’re creating right there, right then.

There’s still some gigs left on the Scottish tour before it winds up in a homecoming gig at the Queen’s Hall in Scotland’s other (east coast) capital at the end of the month so, if they’re coming anywhere near you, go and see them. Not only have they absolutely still got it but they’ll send you out into the night aglow and warmed and inspired in the way that only traditional music, connecting souls and spirits and different understandings to the universal themes that bind us all, can properly do.

*  Might not have been strictly true.

Book Review: Early Riser

After the heft of Ali Smith’s Spring, I turned for a bit of light relief to the sizable wit and immense imagination, not to say comic realisation, of Jasper Fforde, whose 14th novel, Early Riser, was published in the UK last year.

Early Riser is set in an alternative universe Wales, around Talgarth in fact, in which climate change has rendered the winters so cold that most – though crucially not all – humans have evolved to hibernate in vast dormitoria, the UK has collapsed, society is divided into haves and have nots and is based on the exploitation of a slave class, and in which the rule of the gun, and nature’s own cruelty, dispenses summary justice.

I’m not joking.

Emerging from a two-year creative hiatus – his period of scribernation – stemming from an extended period of writer’s ‘textual jam’, this is an entirely stand-alone (almost post-Ffordist) novel but one whose themes and styles will be familiar to those used to Fforde’s style and approach. Thus, there are extended use of humorous footnotes and brief paragraphs quoting from established – but entirely fictitious – reference ‘texts’; the website and the novel’s endpages feature additional material designed to entrench the reality of world which Fforde is creating; there are in-jokes, including a self-deprecatory one referencing his own writer’s block; there is curiously odd, stilted dialogue in which the characters visually look askance at one another as well as dialogue which creates deliberate pathos in service of the characterisation; there are deus ex machinae galore; the patriarchal world is turned upside down with strong women characters and references to a feminised society; the world turned upside down encompasses the advised, and government-backed, requirement for people to lay down fat reserves before falling asleep in hibernation; and there is a certain, and clearly intended, mystery about the gender identity of the lead character. The whole is written with such wit and such panache that the reader can’t help but be caught up in the self-conscious creation of an alternative universe, clearly to be held up as a mirror against our own, to which Fforde is absolutely committed.

At the same time, we have many evident contemporary socio-political references on top of a timecale that is, deliberately and joyously, both imprecise and of all time: the Wales in which the characters move features (unseen) mammoths and sabre-tooth tigers; it neighbours an ‘Albion’ of dubious cultural value and contribution; transport is by train on pre-Beeching routes; there are feared ‘villains’ drawn humorously from English Edwardian upper-classes; and there are frequent references to sweet treats of the 1970s and 1980s. Yet, there are numerous contemporary references: the monetary currency in Wales is the euro; the UK has clearly dissolved into an independent Wales (in which everyone speaks Welsh), a loosely-formed ‘Albion’ and references to a Northern Fed which may or may not encompass an independent Scotland; there is sly commentary on shadowy ‘big pharma’ and the control exercised by faceless corporates determined to push the boundaries of ethics as far as and until they are found out; there is a sub-text of exploitation closely referencing modern debates on the terms and conditions of employment of peripheral workers; and the dreamscape on which the novel centres closely embodies ‘the internet’, somehow ahead of and yet behind the characters’ level of understanding, as well as the control which numerous, but hidden, others may exercise over our movements in that world. The central notion that here is a world in which its characters are, blindly and unwittingly, and apparently care-free, sleeping through a large part of their existence, and in which those ordinary people who are asleep as well as the tiny minority of those who, extraordinarily, spend their winters awoke are largely accepting of the ethos of the world they inhabit, will not be lost on contemporary readers. And, on top of all that, there is the novel’s underpinning of a weak, wholly inadequate and pathetic response to climate change in which the redundant coalfields of Wales have been set alight as a means of dealing with the catastrophe of climate change.

This is a joyful, rumbunctious allegory of a dystopian society which is barely able to acknowledge that it has gone somehow, disastrously, wrong but in which the seeds of hope and of youthful endeavour (à la Greta Thunberg) may yet be able to save the day where we are able to overcome the limits of imagination we impose on ourselves. This is not unfamiliar Ffordian territory, but the theme here is darker, bleaker and more desperately non-human than the worlds he has created in his novels hitherto. The body count is high, weapons are high-tech and absolutely terminal, and there is a disregard for human life symptomatic of a society which has inflated corporate values and sloganeering, and the winner-take-all mentality, over social cohesion, consensus and solidarity between people. The ride is somewhat rough, and there may be question marks over the exactitudes of the plot and the motivations of the characters, but those need to be put aside in a novel whose celebratory style of writing betrays precious little of the effort which authors put in to realise their own objectives. Thank goodness, instead of laborious written accounts, for verbal podcasts and interviews – the one referenced above as well as others featured on Fforde’s own Twitter.

Observers of Westminster not least this week, and of the post-Brexit world we are now starting to (re-)create, will easily recognise the world which Fforde describes. The solution to the dystopian world into which we are now falling – in working the hard yards of building solidarity between people and collective identity afresh – are less easily recognised in a plot resolution which owes a little more to fantasy and to individual chance than I might have preferred; but this is a novel in which the identification of the clear avenues which have led a society into a disastrous situation is a more important process than the telling of a Tressellian tale about what needs to be done in response. That fight, instead, is up to us inhabitants of that contemporary world.

And, in the meantime, of course: #StopTheCoup

Book Review: Spring

Spring‘, the third in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet of novels depicting aspects of life in contemporary Britain, is as literarily clever and determined to challenge as either of its two predecessors. There’s a real sense at the end of this one that Smith is just getting into her stride with her endeavour, as indeed she’ll need to if ‘Summer’ is both to improve on this confident, magisterial and appropriately angry work as well as to tie the themes of the quartet up into a coherent, cyclical whole.

Spring, the season of new life and new beginnings – and, of course, new hope. Here we have two linked stories – a literary-inspired one featuring Richard, an ageing TV director facing up to the death of Paddy, his confidante and occasional scriptwriter; and a contemporary one featuring Brit(tany), a detainee custody officer in an immigration removal centre, and a precocious child named Florence whose powers of persuasion prompt Brit to do some detective work of her own (and in her own self-interest) following an incident which had passed into legend at her IRC. Both stories, both halves of the novel, are brought together in Kingussie, in the Scottish highlands, in which Gàidhlig and the use of language features alongside reflections on the clearances which encouraged waves of migration out of Scotland (from where refugees moved into Canada, Australia and New Zealand, among others).

Readers familiar with the series will quickly recognise the repetition of the approaches and themes that Smith has adopted in the other two novels so far: there are literary allusions to Shakespeare plays and Dickens novels, to which Smith here add some TS Eliot and some Shelley; there is again a love of Charlie Chaplin brought to the characters inhabiting each novel by one who figures in them all; there are stunning word plays (Andy Hoffnung is a TV play of Richard’s and Paddy’s about the Holocaust while an die Hoffnung (‘dedicated to hope’) is the theme uniting the two stories (vivunt spe) as well as allowing the ghost of fascism to unite the history and the contemporary); the Auld Alliance is the name not just of a B&B in Kingussie but a historic way of France and Scotland dealing with growing over-mighty English nationalism as well as the name of an essential character (while Kingussie itself is a word play); a woman artist (here, Tacita Dean) acts as a prompt for reflections on the contribution of art and artists in helping us interpret and understand our society and whose work underpins one of the themes of the novel (clouds); there is a vignette of an encounter with jobsworth officialdom in the guise of transport police (here not as comical as in the set-piece counters in the previous two volumes, and briefer, but amusing nonetheless); and there is repeated interest in the ability of outsiders to engage in word play and promote the use of language rather better than domestic characters, with an interesting comment on relationships at a time when Britain is re-examining its own relationships with Europe and the rest of the world.

The railway is both an actual thing in itself, carrying the characters to their destination, as well as a metaphor for something happening in the novel. Postcards – scenes in and out of life – are again a key prompt for the action. And, of course, the shadowy SA4A organisation again makes an appearance – here rather more overtly than hitherto since it runs the IRC in which Brittany works (and in which the corruption of her own innocence against her better nature by becoming a part of the ‘machine’) is a source of shame just as much as IRCs are themselves). Furthermore, jokey references to contemporary slogans of political life not only convey significances which drip with meaning and with acerbic, mocking humour, they also call to mind that this is Smith’s own latterday version of Dickens’s ability to write quickly, in serialisation form for immediate publication, with both acting as chronicler and social and moral critic of the injustices of the times in which they live. It is no accident that Smith draws heavily here on her own work with refugees.

This is an intelligent, confident novel, one not afraid to show its learning even if the touch is sometimes a little heavy, from one of Britain’s premier wordSmiths which shows signs of a tighter plotting than the weaknesses which somewhat marred its predecessor. Indeed, the one plot weakness here can be explained in terms of the novel’s recurring theme of hope: that the hope of a moment’s reconciliation can prompt the taking of apparently outlandish risks. Furthermore, the anger at what British society is allowing itself to become – at the frog failing to notice the steady increase in the temperature of the water in which it believes it is swimming while actually it is being cooked – is here conveyed in soliloquies which are more direct, more acute and (even) more passionate than before.

Smith’s over-riding theme in this series, aided by the non-linear approach to her narratives, is the circularity of all things – that, just as much as seasons come and go, and the natural world is prompted by the passing of time, the politics of human existence sees both familiarity and renewal in the repetition of events. There are not necessarily happy endings but, with each fresh awakening ought to come a more ‘woke’ experience alongside, it is to be hoped, a little more learning and a little more ability to be a little cleverer than before as each cycle comes round again in which we need to recognise what we can learn from older people while passing the baton to the young, the precocious, the dynamic and the idealistic.

In the meantime, roll on Summer.

Book Review: Another Planet

With a highly successful memoir on the bookshelf, plus a follow-up volume about the art of singing, and her bimonthly column in The Staggers, as well as an appearance on Desert Island Discs in 2018 and the strongly-autobiographical Record (in this context, not least on ‘Smoke’) the same year, Another Planet provides a new angle in Tracey Thorn’s mining of the seam of her own life story for creative juices, now that live performances of her music are out of her life. Here, we have her reflections on growing up as a teenager in Brookmans Park, in suburban Hertfordshire, drawn from her own assiduously-written diaries, kept since she was 13, and amidst reflections sparked by two visits back there for virtually the first time since leaving home, rupturously, in 1981. My hardback copy with a personal dedication, too (thanks, Trac(e)y!).

It’s clear that Thorn writes prose as she writes songs: there are not only quotes from songs, with copyright acknowledgements, but other snippets of half-lines creep in, too – her own ‘Missing’ is there, as is some Springsteen (‘The River’). The idea of songs as prose gives us a major clue to Thorn’s approach to songwriting – her personal prose style highlights that her songs, too, are also deeply personal. Another Planet reveals that, in her case, the origins lie in her relationship with her parents and it is perhaps this, rather than the expressed boredom of growing up in Brookmans Park, which is the prompt for her long-lasting, and continually refreshed, creativity. Twas ever thus – and not only via Philip Larkin (who , interestingly, would still have been librarian at the University of Hull when Thorn was an undergraduate there) – but of all teenagers rebelling against stultifying authority, from Johnny Strabler onwards.

Another Planet‘s title is not drawn from that song by Peter Perrett or any other such reference, but is a deeply personal (and upsetting) observation which strongly resonates with her own relationship with her parents. It seems not so much that her parents did not understand her, as in their reaction to her perhaps not particularly accessible (not least to them) but strongly personal second album, Out of the Woods, but they had little appreciation for who she was or her own desire to make her own way in a world which was contrary to theirs and in the underaking of which she so demonstrably rejected their values. This leads Thorn to some interesting, if rather light, ruminations on the role of suburbia in generating creativity, not least among musicians, as well as, rather more importantly, to the less understood role (at the time) that her relationship with her parents at 18 had for her song-writing, style of singing and shy stagecraft. The book is dedicated to her siblings and, tellingly and forgivingly, to the (now deceased) parents they shared.

The diaries in this volume stop at 18 which is fair enough in the sense that, with the ‘Marine Girls’ already underway, this is enough of the prequel to the material covered in Bedsit Disco Queen. Furthermore, with her moving on from Brookmans Park, the reflections on growing up in suburbia surely ought to cease. And yet there is little clue in the diary entries mentioned here about suburbia; Thorn’s concerns are those of many teenagers – school, work, music, parents, discos and, in her case, boys – with her locational milieu providing little conscious contribution to her understanding of her life at that time. As, perhaps, it could only do in retrospect. We should also note that the diary entries are circumspect, available space being occasionally the key not only in regarding the importance of what is left out at the time (as well as regarding any other prying eyes that might have seen it), but what Thorn has also chosen to leave out, and put in, now some forty years later. We are getting the Thorn-as-teenager that Thorn herself wants us to see. This is absolutely fine, and not only from a private person, with teenagers of her own, but it does allow us to provide some reservations about her notes on the boredom and frustration of growing up in suburbia because we also know – from Desert Island Discs – that Thorn, as a child, enjoyed living where she did. Though perhaps we shouldn’t draw too many parallels between children and teenagers.

Occasionally somewhat disjointed thematically – the work has its origins in a lengthy essay on growing up in suburbia as well as various pieces of other published writing – Another Planet has a fantastically appropriate and judiciously-chosen cover from the work of Gavin Watson and I defy anyone of our age not to connect with it at some level. I say ‘ours’ deliberately as Thorn, one year older than me, was also born in the front bedroom of the house she grew up in, we both left homes in the south-east of England to go to higher education institutions in the north-east and even Thorn’s aversion to driving shares some aspects of my own. Her first solo work – A Distant Shore – proved as strongly influential on me in my twenties as the emotions she was under at the time were on her writing and singing of it.

Part-memoir, part-social history, part-conversation, this is unmissable for any fans of Tracey Thorn – and for, that matter, anyone born in the early to mid 1960s.

Book Review: One Clear, Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the 21st Century

I was attracted by this book as much as a result of its eye-catching title – a translation in English (as in the original German: An einem klaren, eiskalten Januarmorgen zu Beginn des 21 Jahrhunderts) of the opening line – as its location in contemporary European, as opposed to distinctly UK, literature.

Roland Schimmelpfennig, the prolific playwright (and former journalist), is a man used to commenting on the populism of these times and on the need for liberals to exercise the muscles required to call out zombie fascism when we come across it, an act which is apparently difficult to do even when it comes, disguised, knocking on our doors at Christmas. This is his first novel, but it continues the theme of much of his work, inspired by the rise of the AfD in Germany as much as by its populist counterparts that we can find both in the UK and, unfortunately, in several other European countries.

The title depicts a single act taking place in the depths of a particularly hard winter at the beginning of this century (thus some sixteen or so years prior to the novel’s original publication) when a lone wolf is able to cross a frozen river marking the border between Germany and Poland. A short while later, the wolf is photographed somewhere close to Berlin and, when the photograph is published, the remarkability of its existence – the first wild wolf to be seen at least in this part of Germany in over 160 years – acts to spread its fame. As the wolf continues its, substantially unseen, journey towards and into the capital of modern Germany, Schimmelpfennig’s characters interact with its presence and its absence in ways that are both predictable, charming and naive.

The symbolism is clear – as well it ought to be, as this is more or less entirely a symbolic work. The wolf is alone, it has ‘crossed’ from Poland (not forgetting that east Germany lay on its route ‘westwards’, as the author is well aware), not that freedom of movement has any significance for wild animals, and it is potentially symbolic of the re-wilding initiative that sees, for example, the desirability of the re-introduction of the lynx and, indeed, the wolf, into Scotland (although there are no official plans yet to do so). The ‘lone wolf’ as a leitmotif of an outsider, and not of ourselves, and therefore something possessed of great power but thus to be feared, rejected and destroyed, needs also to be observed.

Schimmelpfennig’s telling is, as we might expect from a playwright, big screen and cinematic. The chapters are short and episodic – sometimes less than one page and very rarely more than three – and the approach is broad brush though not, we should note, at the expense of detail although it does require the reader to pay attention. The cast of characters is sizable and, inevitably, not least as a result of the brevity of the work, some are drawn more fully rounded than others although few are unrealised and a higher profile work may well experience a clamour of A-list actors interested in reading it. It is also quite clearly a paean to modern, multi-cultural Berlin – where Schimmelpfennig is resident – with the city and its ever-changing streets, bars and personalities emerging as an actor, albeit a passive one, in the development of the tale.

Ultimately, the moral is really quite clear: that the atomised, individualised lives that we lead in a modern urban environment lead us frequently into an isolated, vulnerable existence akin to that of a lone wolf: that we are so focused on living our own lives that we forget how to live as part of a pack and that the rules of living become much less collectively-oriented and much more based on the rule of the jungle. Where Schimmelpfennig’s characters do interact with each other, it is most commonly with outcomes that are benign, albeit loaded with potential for misunderstandings and for a lack of mutual comprehension. That is the price of how we choose to live alongside others that we do not know and who, it seems, we frequently do not want to get to know. Where, essentially therefore, capitalism is indeed red in tooth and claw, it is as much our own fault as a result of our inability to recognise the strengths that we have when we act as part of a collective. Multi-culturalism doesn’t undermine that, but it does require us all to recognise that the working class, whatever the boundaries imposed either by border or by art, with many of Schimmelpfennig’s characters being artists, has more to unite it than divide it. It does, of course, make such lessons more difficult to realise, but that ought not, in principle, to ask too much of 21st century humans brought up on the lessons of the destructive horrors of the 20th century.

That the book has a slightly retrospective outlook, being set more than a decade prior to the events it describes, adds to its moral of the lessons that we need again to re-learn if we are once more to be not subjects of an economic system but sovereign over it; in control of our history and of our destiny, not captured by one or both of these.

Book review: Reservoir 13 / The Reservoir Tapes

Much like the writer of this blog, Jon McGregor is not prolific in terms of output: when published in spring 2017, Reservoir 13 was his first novel in seven years, and only his fifth since first being published, at the age of 26, in 2002. Yet, it was followed just a few months later by a companion volume, the scripts (written by McGregor) for what was originally a BBC Radio 4 series (sadly, no longer available) and casts sets fresh light on the events set out at the outset of the main novel. The expectation – and indeed the cost – of a comparative lack of output is that what does come out must be complex, well thought-out and profound. Thankfully, McGregor doesn’t let us down (as indeed his palmares indicates) in this lyrical, deeply affecting and elegiac work.

The premise of Reservoir 13 is the contemporary disappearance of a 13 year-old girl, ‘Rebecca, or Becky or Bex’ who appears only fleetingly as a character but whose mirage and whose elusive presence continues to haunt over at least the next thirteen years the Peak District village from which she was staying for a New Year break, with her disappearance continuing to reverberate through the lives of the villagers. (We might debate the significance in the work of the number 13, and it clearly has significance here, although it doesn’t appear to play any particular role in resolving its mystery.) In the Tapes, which explores events in the period leading up to Becky’s disappearance and immediately afterwards, she does appear in her own right and is revealed as a teenager possessed of a wilful, rebellious and youthful, somewhat insolent, devil-may-care streak.

The work itself is divisive since its lack of resolution will be off-putting for a large percentage of readers (not this one) in search of all ends being tied up. This is not a straightforward crime novel, or a thriller, in which we find out ‘whodunnit’ or in which we discover what happens. Dear reader: much like life itself, I’m afraid we do not. What we do have instead is two halves of one work, very different stylistically, which do not seek to provide an ending but which do aim to deliver solid and evolving characters and to tell its story in a way which gives the reader plenty of clues as to what might have happened to Becky.

In Reservoir 13, McGregor tells his tale in a rigidly structured way: each of the 13 chapters deals with the year subsequent to Becky’s disappearance, devoting two or three pages to a month-by-month, single paragraph resume of the quotidian, cyclical events in the village – the New Year fireworks, the Spring Dance, the well dressing, the cricket match against a neighbouring village, Harvest Festival, Mischief Night and the Christmas panto – and set, cheek-by-jowl, with descriptive writing of annually-recurring natural developments involving foxes and badgers; goldcrests, buzzards, blackbirds, herons and crows; butterflies and springtails; produce from the allotments, bracken and brambles; sheep, cattle and baling. The effect of this carefully-layered repetition is hypnotic, and it sets the evolution of the relationships between McGregor’s substantial dramatis personae, running (even in partial form) to some eighty characters, and who, in all the messy foibles of human lives, fall in and out of love; have affairs, or try to; arrive, drift and depart from the village; work, open and close businesses; bear children; get drunk; fall ill; and grow old. The events in the characters’ lives are dealt with in each segment in just a couple of short, almost diary-like sentences as part of the work of nature and which take place to the same, remorseless rhythms and routines and calendar. The voice is entirely passive and, consequently, dialogue is reported rather than spoken. In spite of the manner of the telling, McGregor has an eye for a neat turn of phrase and there is occasionally explosive use of humour which not only leavens the evolution of the rhythms of the tale but also allows its central characters not only to live but breathe.

Meanwhile, the Tapes features succinct and revealing vignettes of the lives of 15 (not 13…) of the characters and which, in contrast to the novel, do so on the basis of individual stories told in a more straightforwardly active way and whose witness is, of course, informed both by self-interest and sometimes venal considerations alongside sometimes more altruistic ones. The focus in the Tapes on individual voice fractures, but does not break, the collective voice which inspires the approach to the writing of the earlier novel.

Both halves comes together in a mutually-enriching narrative to set clues, highlight motives and menaces, and raise suspicions about individuals who might know something or who might be somehow implicated in Becky’s disappearance; or whether, indeed, there might be an alternative explanation which has little to do with human involvement, the far from innocent character of the environment and a rural setting being often malign to those who do not understand the dangers of a pastoral hillside whose detail often appears hidden.

Thus it is not only the lack of resolution but also the manner of the telling that will divide readers or leave them feeling, as McGregor himself has commented, ‘hoodwinked’. In this same interview, McGregor spoke of writing Reservoir 13 out of sequence and piecemeal, re-assembling the pieces written about characters and nature more or less as a collage – a particularly interesting comment on the creative process and McGregor’s own abilities as a writer given that Reservoir 13 is exclusively a linear work. Patience on the part of the reader with the lack of developments in Becky’s disappearance itself will be rewarded in the enjoyment of a well-observed tale of great beauty and imagination of how we interact with each other.

Readers bring to a complex novel their own understandings and it is this that will inform how they measure its worth – and this is as it should be. For me, this is a work about loss, of course, but also of leaving – apparently two sides of the same coin in several respects, but one which marks out that all the things we do and say, and the way we live our own lives, have profound and sometimes tragic effects on the lives and characters of all those who become involved with us, however fleetingly. We are all interconnected and the essential lesson is that all of us need to call to mind more often the implications of our actions and words on others. The human gift for violence – of thought, word or action – is indeed a repeated one; as, also, are the small kindnesses and thoughtful tendernesses which, in contrast, bind us together. All of us are vulnerable, endangered beings, whatever the face that we put to the outside world and we need to have greater respect for that. As Editors once sang.

Book Review: The Wall

John Lanchester’s The Wall is frequently, and indeed best, described as ‘dystopian’ – relating to or denoting an imagined state or society where there is great suffering or injustice.

Lanchester’s vision is of a future somewhat shrunken UK surrounded by a 10,000km wall built, primarily, in response to the impact of ‘the Change’ – climate change resulting in dramatically raised sea levels which have destroyed every beach, led to the destruction of food chains and food security, and made fUK a place of cold weather much more closely associated with our latitude than is currently the case; and patrolled by Defenders on a two-year stint of compulsory national service whose job it is to keep out – with extreme prejudice – all those who seek to get over it. This is not because the fUK within resembles anything like a promised land – inter-generational conflict, a society based on the racist exploitation of others, population collapse and a vast level of its limited resource sucked into security see to it that fUK is a place of cold, hatred, totalitarian control, guilt, bitterness and barely-disguised fear – and in which ‘Sweet moderation/Heart of this nation‘ has, finally, deserted us – but it does highlight the desperation motivating those seeking nevertheless to enter.

fUK society is divided into a globalised Elite still able to fly; the elderly, blamed for the disaster since it was on their watch that the Change happened; Defenders, some of whom, like Kavanagh, the central character, dream futilely of joining the Elite but whose more realistic future is to become a Breeder whose key role in staving off further population decline is rewarded with time away from the Wall; and Others – those managing to get over The Wall and who are, once caught up with, given the choice of enslavement or euthanasia. Those who are judged responsible for influxes of Others over the Wall are de-chipped – essentially, they are ‘enemies within’ – and put out to sea on a one-in-and-one-out basis. The prospects of any sort of redemption for Kavanagh and his colleagues appear bleak.

The novel is opaque as regards just how far into the future this vision takes place. Some will see Lanchester’s fUK as a continuation of several trends already present in society (all dystopian novels, including The Road, 1984 and Brave New World are essentially versions of the present). With this in mind, calls for non-intervention in the case of the tiny numbers of migrants crossing the Channel in small boats, on the grounds that such action might encourage others, are being made; while the dehumanising nature of our political discourse and the normalisation of hate speech facilitated by social media platforms and given full voice by Brexit, with Stephen Yaxley-Lennon’s Facebook page taken down only yesterday and with Shamima Begum’s image used in ‘light-hearted fun’ at a type of shooting range aimed at young children, give Lanchester’s fiction a very real footing. Unmistakeably, this is also a ‘post’-Brexit novel – its language is the language of Brexit – to add to a burgeoning list. What he is outlining in The Wall is not the future – but it does indeed feel a lot like a version of the future towards which we are currently headed.

Lanchester does not seek to describe the state of fUK. (Incidentally, this is not a term that he uses, but the UK seems still to exist in some way given that Scotland appears to continue to be a part of it, although how much of Scotland is actually left is a moot point given that it is also referred to as ‘the north’.) Indeed, this is not a grim tale of what we have become but to take this, in a quite matter-of-fact way, as a given. This provides a solid starting point for the novel’s exploration of human reactions to their state and to question how on earth it is we have got there. Whereas the history of the present up to September 2001 had been the tearing down of walls, as Lanchester himself has commented, the post-World Trade Center history of the present has represented a dehumanising of the ‘other’ coupled in the last ten years with a post-crash austerity politics which has sought to use the ‘other’ as a target for blame; and on which the present-day version of inter-generational inequality – our children’s generation being the first to transfer resources back to their parents (a reversal of the accepted inter-generational inequality of the past) – has much to comment.

A slightly more ambitious novel than this one might have sought to establish The Wall as a character in its own right but, here, its role is simply a physical barrier while yet underscoring a clear point about our obliviousness to our environment – our inability to learn and to act in its defence. Given the known CO2 emissions involved in the manufacture of concrete, the construction of 10,000km of concrete wall, five metres high on the seaward side and involving ‘millions of tons’ of the stuff, erected in response to the destruction wrought by climate change, provides an acutely ironic comment on our own lack of understanding of what we are doing when it comes to green issues. As indeed, given the environmental impact of air travel, does Kavanagh’s appreciation of the elite as being those that are still able to fly.

As other reviews have indicated, the style of Lanchester’s writing is ‘affectless’ (see here and here – both ££) and its dispassionate nature makes the characters’ role in their own misery somewhat hard to work through until we reach the final section. fUK is an individualised, post-collective society – a reminder that this is a state which those driving Brexit seek further to entrench – and the implications of that for the UK’s current direction is clear. There is no collective organisation in response to the conditions in which people find themselves and neither, does it seem, is there any attempt at riots and revolution.

Such attempts may of course have already been defeated and, as I say, it is not Lanchester’s aim to describe what we have become but to use this is a platform to contemplate why. One of my earlier thoughts while reading the first two of the book’s thirds, aided not least by the almost complete lack of typos on the pages, was that this was a novel written by artificial intelligence; or that the characters we meet within it are actually cyborgs. Neither is true (at least, I don’t think either is true) but key to understanding how the characters interact with their society, and therefore to how Lanchester contemplates our current state, is our increasing lack of empathy. The Wall is, here, not without hope. Re-learning, in the first place, and then re-establishing empathy – the key also to addressing a lack of collective awareness and solidarity – may yet give Kavanagh and his colleagues the key to overcoming their state. It is a long way back from there – but if we are to avoid that state, re-establishing empathy before we have to re-learn it, and while we still have time to appreciate precisely what it means, may yet help us avoid such a state’s worst excesses.

Book review: Long Road from Jarrow

I was given this as a present (thanks, Tracy!) a couple of years ago and immediately relished the anticipation of reading it, although it has had to wait more than its fair share of time sitting on my to-read shelf. It ought not to have: it’s clear that Maconie is as much of a fan of Newcastle as I – and I mean here the city, not the Toon. At 17, applying for several of what were then called polys, I arrived in Newcastle and, in an echo of Maconie’s opening paragraphs here, sweeping over the King Edward Bridge with the city spread out before and below me, I was sold on the prospect of living and studying here long before I ever got anywhere near the campus.

Not only that, I was a sand dancer for a while – although that’s not a term I recognised until Maconie’s earlier book, Pies and Prejudice. In the summer of 1984, I had a job working in the South Shields branch office of the Northern Rock, alongside David, Carol, Jean, Lesley, Alison, Anne-Marie (whose maternity cover I was) and June, whose husband was a striking miner up at Westoe Colliery. In almost daily conversations about the strike, I came to realise for the first time the value of taking collective action for something you believed in – June was herself the embodiment of the notion that the miners’ strike was fought equally by strong families as much as by strong miners.

My route into Shields on the metro from my Tyneside flat along Sunderland Road in Gateshead (bulldozed into a new development some time ago, I note) took me through Jarrow (if I was lucky, sharing the ride alongside Elizabeth, who also worked in Shields three doors up at the Newcastle Building Society and whose stop was Jarrow. The Rock – in those days still a building society prior to its transformation by rapacious gold-diggers into a risk-taking ‘proper’ financial institution – is no longer there, of course, but the Newcastle, which remains a building society, has relocated further down Fowler Street, and expanded, while Virgin Money, which took over parts of the Rock, now seems to occupy the place, and the footprint, formerly vacated by the Newcastle).

In October 1986, three months after graduating and newly installed in work on Teesside, I found myself back in ‘Jarra’ and listening to the general secretary of GMB, John Edmonds, at the fiftieth celebration issue yet another apology for the failure of the labour and trade union movements to offer better moral, practical and indeed financial support to the marchers, ahead of the departure the following day (IIRC) of the 1986 version of the Jarrow march. As he invited one of the few remaining 1936 marchers to join him on the stage, there was a small shuffle behind and just to the right of me – and up stepped a man whose name I can’t quite remember, but who might possibly have been Jimmy Foggon. I was standing feet away (and in front of) a living legend, himself (and again) just a part of the crowd. This might have been for personal reasons, but I found it very odd.

The reasons for the lack of solidarity from the organised labour and trade union movements for the 1936 marchers are fairly well explored in Maconie’s book, although his aim here is not to provide a history of the march, of which there are several also referenced here. It would of course not be possible for one man walking alone (and sometimes taking buses and taxis) to recreate the collective endeavours of 200 men – the logistics of keeping that many men on the road for three weeks are clearly considerable; and we should not lose sight that one of the strengths of the original march was its collective nature. However, by following the same route, and on the same days in October, Maconie’s aim was to take the temperature of post-Brexit referendum Britain in a series of conversations with the people he encountered en route. As a sociologist, and a wry but clear-sighted commentator on the foibles of modern day living, Maconie is well equipped for the task even if, on occasion, he appears a little lost and somewhat lonely – an observer rather than a participant – and even though the politics will not be for everyone (on the left, but equally certainly no fan of Jeremy Corbyn).

It was a surprise to see for how many of those he meets that the 1936 march was not a total blank: a relative success for the teaching of relatively recent social (and labour) history, I feel, as well as the presence of the march in the collective consciousness. However, Maconie’s biggest achievement in bringing this book to life is its reminder that we have been here before: the cry of the working class to be heard, and for good quality, skilled jobs – frequently at the forefront of analysts and Brexit apologists – is not a new phenomenon. Capitalism in crisis, bringing devastation to towns dependent for work and a living on a single source (or a series of chained sources), can be seen not just in the outcome of the 2016 vote and in the miners’ strike, as well as in the loss of steel industry jobs in Consett and Corby and Motherwell and Port Talbot and Redcar, and with new jobs frequently being low-skilled, low paid and insecure; it is certainly also there in the decision of 200 men from Jarrow to walk to London carrying their petition about the closure of the shipyard and the need for more work to save the town. And being ultimately fobbed off. That we are still having the same debates eighty-plus years on is evidently a reflection of the continual failure of neoliberal economics based on the laws of the market, alongside its continual success in the perpetual selling of promises and in the trading of lies to the working class by rich elites. The answer to all that is reasonably clear – and there is a message there too for labour organisations.

That Brexit will also lead to job losses amongst the working class is also clear: the cry to be heard is likely to lead to the cry for further investment in working class communities and no-one, ordinary voter or elected representative, ought to be trusting the promises of this government on that. But it is the greatest tragedy that those who responded to the lies of the Leave campaign are those who are likely to lose most from it, while those elites who teased it and led it are those who will be among those who profit the most. It is the outcomes of that which probably need to be feared more than the question of ‘undermining democracy’ by the simple expedient of asking people whether, three years on, the bright future outside the EU sold to them and for which they voted back in 2016 is indeed still what they want or whether they now see it for what it is: a mirage, or a chimera.

Maconie concludes with a fairly rosy passage on the liars and the bullies, the loudmouths and the puritans, the pub bores and the ineffectual commissars not being the best of us and, while that’s true, it’s also true that our public discourse has chosen to put the views of these same groups in an elevated position. The referendum itself, the way it was conducted and its aftermath in naturalising the telling of lies and in the trashing of political standards and discourse, as the Article 50 process speeds towards its irrevocable conclusion, will continue to reverberate not least in terms of a decision over whether the Scottish working class, which is fundamentally pro-EU, will continue to align itself with an English working class which is anti-EU stemming, at least in part, from an unresolved and boorish English nationalism* or, instead, with the working class on the rest of the continent. Inevitably, there are many in Scotland who will see the establishment of a hard border on the island of Britain, to the north of Carlisle and Berwick, as A Good Thing.

The more telling passage in Maconie’s journey perhaps came a little earlier, however, when Maconie, an Italophile, discovers that Bedford has a population of 15-20,000 Italians – around one-fifth to one-quarter of the population – originally as a result of the brickworks needing labour in the 1950s in the literal reconstruction of Britain and many Italian men from the Mezzogiorno needing work. They were given four-year contracts with the right to stay at the end and many did – though many also returned home for personal reasons. During that time, their continued presence would have been at the whim of the brickworks managers and, despite tough living and working conditions, workers would have needed to keep their noses clean or lose the right to stay – a post-Brexit future based on a return to the past and to the exploitation of migrant labour for which no trade unionist can be in favour but with which we continue to be ill-equipped to deal. We can note that Bedford probably voted for Brexit in around the same proportion as the UK as a whole and a little higher than in the rest of the south-east (c. 53%). Building solidarity among the working class continues, it seems, to be a long-term project, as much now as in 2016, and as in 1956, and as in 1936.

*text in italics originally included in the draft mapped out in my head but which then failed to make it on to the page.

Book Review: Winter

This, the second volume in Ali Smith’s ‘four seasons’ quartet of novels, emerged in November 2017 just fifteen months after the publication of Autumn (the next – Spring – is due out next March, i.e. with a very similar time interval). The novels are complete entities in their own right and can be read as stand-alone novels, but there are clear links between them both in terms of characters and in terms of theme, adding depth to both (somewhat buried in the first case, unless you are really paying attention; but overt and strong in the second). This is a unified major work, produced not as one book but in instalments.

Here, we have a family coming together over Christmas in a delapidated house (itself standing as metaphor for the series’ theme of the post-Brexit state of the UK) located in Cornwall. Sophie and Iris are sisters, the first formerly a successful businesswoman now sonewhat embittered and showing the first signs of dementia, living alone in the house; the second, and older of the two, a veteran of the women’s camp and protest at Greenham Common, currently working among refugees in Greece, and previously part of a radical commune in that same house; Art is Sophie’s son, a fairly feckless 30-something copyright researcher (for the same conglomerate security company which also featured in ‘Autumn’) by day and nature blog writer by night, who arrives on Christmas Eve having fallen out with his girlfriend but who has managed to procure Lux, whom he had met at a bus stop on the winter solstice, in her place.

As always with Ali Smith novels, there is much going on here thematically and readers  know what to expect – words tumble from the pages, sometimes apparently incoherently; the timeline jumps around continually and not always clearly; alternate readings of developments are placed in immediate juxtaposition; there are deep allusions to earlier events in how the characters interact; the writing style is witty, humorous, laconic and acerbic, and with knowingly planted literary references; and there are word plays gu leòr. The links to ‘Autumn’ are clear, both in terms of theme and in terms of a link to art (here the sculptor Barbara Hepworth; there the artist Pauline Boty). In short, Smith writes about art but also about life, and with a life-like liveliness and in full, glorious colour; and her characters are not only immensely believeable as a result but with near-independent lives of their own. Thematically, she is absolutely in charge and she handles her thematic material with supreme confidence and vitality.

My difficulty with the book is the rushed publication timescale. I understand the importance of speed in a quartet of this type, while Smith also believes that, when a novel comes, it needs to be trusted and allowed to breathe. The aim is to produce each of the novels just prior to the the season of the title but the danger is that hasty rush to publication imposed by a forced deadline can lead to errors, dropped threads, awkward interferences in the lives of the characters and a potential loss of control over some of the plot material. In a work in which art is a major theme, the existence of forced, and somewhat arbitrary, deadlines comes as something of a surprise.

Iris, for example, has no other family that we know of than Sophie – with whom she has not spoken in nearly thirty years, by the way – but finds herself back in the UK for Christmas and located somewhere close by. Nevertheless, she is able to respond to Art’s early Christmas morning call for help to come over to the house and, of course, she has enough food for all. Lux is indeed the key character, shedding light on all despite her youth and stemming from a complex personal history and current circumances (she is a Croatian refugee from a family which had fled to Canada but who had recently been studying in the UK, the country of Shakespeare), but the choice of name is shockingly, and unnecessarily, mallet-like. (Neither, despite intensely reading a ‘Chicken Cottage’ menu when Art first meets her, does she actually work for Chicken Cottage, though this might reflect a deliberate concealment.) Art’s blog writing is truly awful – that’s part of the point, but it is indeed terribly cliched and unreadably written; you’ll have to trust me on this one, but it’s not actually possible to build a blog audience (or a twitter following) when you have absolutely no feel for what you are writing about. Both Sophie and Art have some kind of unexplained visual disturbance which has a physical manifestation but which appears to come to naught. Despite the (contemporary) action taking place over just one week at the end of 2016, the end of the book extends forward well beyond winter, and into spring and summer 2017 with little apparent purpose other than to shoehorn-in references to events in the UK (and in the US) within the perspective of the series’ desire to echo current events. I’m entirely comfortable with this as a device – but when the novel’s message is already entirely clear, perhaps the proper homes for such observations is a blog post. Or, indeed, future work within the series.

All these are problems symptomatic of a rushed publication timescale in which there is little time to pick up non-sequiturs (this is not a plea that all loose ends must tie up; just one for threads not to be introduced only to be simply dropped) but also, more crucially, mistakes in the text and weak, or poor, editorial choices. These undermine the work which would have therefore benefited from a more extended review of the content, and one hopes that ‘Spring’ doesn’t suffer the same. It may well be, however, that a rushed timetable means we have, if not to overlook the flaws, then at least to forgive them.

Despite the flaws, the themes constitute ‘Winter’ as a magnificent thing. Seasonally: that winter, when everything appears to be dead, is more a time when things are stilled, gathering strength for the renewal of spring; that jaded palettes and people can be restored even when things seem hopeless; and that the winter solstice, while marking the depth of winter, is also the turning point – that, from here, light once again grows in strength; that things do indeed ‘get better’. Politically: that after the:

… poison, mess [and the] bitterness… the balance [does] come back. The lies revealed. The losses compensated

– that there is both reckoning and rectification. And that the greatest truths about ourselves are often told by those who are ‘outsiders’, people with whom we appear on the face of it to have little in common and whose lives and experiences are not our own. At a time when we as a people are turning inwards, and our backs on our fellow human beings, when available technology ought to be making us more open to new messages and to new people with different characteristics and different perspectives, that is a message of which we urgently need to be reminded, at Christmas and in the depths of winter not least of all – but not only then.