Divine revelations: I, Julian, by Claire Gilbert, reviewed

Claire Gilbert considers Julian of Norwich to be the mother of English literature, and believes she should stand alongside Chaucer. What seems indisputable is that Julian was the author of the first work written in English by a woman. This rather wonderful fictional autobiography was published to coincide with the 650th anniversary of Julian first experiencing, in May 1373, the series of 16 visions she wrote about in Revelations of Divine Love. It comes garlanded with praise from, among others, Jeremy Irons and Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. In Gilbert’s account, Julian was just a child when she watched her father, a Norwich wool merchant, die in agony

You’d never guess from her art how passionate Gwen John was

‘Dearest Gwen,’ writes Celia Paul, born 1959, to Gwen John, died 1939, ‘I know this letter to you is an artifice. I know you are dead and that I’m alive… But I do feel mysteriously connected to you.’ And well she might, because the parallels between the lives of the two painters are legion. To take the most obvious: both were students at the Slade, both had relationships with much older artists and both came to be seen, for a time at least, through the prism of their association with men. Gwen John was the older sister of the once more famous Augustus and model and lover of the French

Lonely voices: Dance Move, by Wendy Erskine, reviewed

‘The drawer beside Roberta’s bed contained remnants of other people’s fun’: so begins ‘Mathematics’, one of 11 stories in this outstanding collection by the Belfast author Wendy Erskine. The opening is Erskine in miniature: the wry, unostentatious prose; the sad interiors with their charged objects (‘a small mother-of-pearl box inlaid with gold, a lipstick that was a stripe of fuchsia, a lucky charm in the shape of a dollar sign’); a character’s casual curiosity about the intimate affairs of others. A bereaved mother scours Belfast with a paint scraper, removing the ‘missing’ posters of her dead son Dance Move might also have been titled Other People’s Fun. As in Erskine’s

A window on a fascinatingly weird place: Some Kind of Heaven reviewed

Some Kind of Heaven is a documentary set in The Villages, Florida, which is often described as a ‘Disneyland for retirees’ — it, too, has its own faux-historical town centre — and is the fastest-growing metropolitan area in America. (Current pop: 130,000.) The vibe is, I would say, cruise ship, but with golf. Hell, in other words, unless, that is, I’m going to be left to rot in a nursing home, in which case: I can learn golf! This is a film by Lance Oppenheim, who lived in The Villages for several months. It is a fascinatingly weird place and the film is worth seeing if only to get a

It’s shameful how we have locked down our elderly

There’s a lot I don’t know about care home visits during this pandemic. I don’t know how straightforward it would be to find a way for close relatives to make proper and regular visits to the very frail. I don’t know details of the arrangements for staff in those care homes to work there and go home afterwards, as hospital staff do too. I don’t know the floor-plans of the thousands of care homes in the United Kingdom, nor how each could be adapted to allow high-priority visits from a relative. There are some 15,000 homes in England alone, and some half a million old people living in them. I

The pandemic’s invisible victims

I sometimes pick up some food at Tesco for an 86-year-old pensioner who lives a few streets over. At the weekend, I brought him milk and cornflakes. He opened his front door; I put the bags down, retreated the required two metres, but when I looked up he was in tears. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, quietly. ‘I’m just so lonely at the moment.’ Should I have moved closer, put my arm around him? At the moment the risk of passing on the virus is low in London. I’ve had the bug (I think) and I used hand gel after leaving the supermarket. It’s been said of the recent protests that

A ‘loneliness pandemic’ could prove as dangerous as coronavirus

The subjugation of nature has formed a cornerstone of the human agenda. How surprising and humbling, then, to find our way of life so rapidly and unexpectedly undermined by a biological force that transcends identity and culture. Still worse, when we discover that the source of this chaos is a sub-microscopic viral particle whose genetic code — simpler than a bacterium — is barely compatible with a living entity. Yet it has brought global civilisation to a standstill. The stark and poetic prose of Paolo Giordano’s essay How Contagion Works conveys the existential angst of an Italian intellectual as he comes to terms with quarantine: the vulnerabilities, missed opportunities, loneliness,

The art of negotiation: Peace Talks, by Tim Finch, reviewed

Early on in Tim Finch’s hypnotic novel Peace Talks, the narrator — the diplomat Edvard Behrends, who facilitates international peace negotiations — reflects: ‘Peace talks settle into this repeating pattern after a while, a pattern like that of the floor carpets in places like this conference centre, in which a polygonal weave mesmerises the eye almost to a vanishing point.’ He is commenting on the lonely, relentless routine of the talks, walks, meals and drinks, as official negotiations inch forward, stall, reverse and proceed again over the course of months. Alongside the diplomatic conference, another type of peace talk is underway: the meandering, intimate prose of the novel’s first-person narrative

We all need to be let alone —not just Greta Garbo

‘You’re never alone with a Strand,’ went the misbegotten advertisement for a new cigarette in 1959. What the copywriter didn’t realise is that smokers often smoke to be alone. As Mass Observation had reported a decade earlier: In an increasingly gregarious world, where fewer and fewer habits and pastimes are entirely individual, the cigarette remains for most people a pleasure that, whatever its social significance, can be enjoyed in entire solitude, and a pleasure that remains entirely individual. At the time, 80 per cent of British men and 40 per cent of women were regular smokers. Smoking was not just a means of inhaling death and of escaping the dead