Ali Smith was speed-writing the fourth and final instalment of her topical Seasons quartet – due for publication in August – when the Covid-19 lockdown came into force. But that didn’t prevent her from volunteering an original piece for a Hay festival that had been hastily reconvened online. “Here’s something that struck me, as if someone took me in their hand, turned me upside down, ran my head roughly along a sandpaper strip and sparked me alight,” began a whimsical 20-minute collaboration with film-maker Sarah Wood that had all the brief brilliance of a struck match.
Her thought is that “the phrase ‘We are where we are’, which so many people have been using in the coronavirus era, is only half right. Actually also, right now, we are where we aren’t: we’re more where we aren’t than we’ve ever been.” This insight – which is not in itself particularly ground-breaking – takes her off to the Sistine chapel, where she notes the gap between the hands of God and Man and observes that “the charge of electricity happens because they don’t touch”. There’s an “and” beyond the hand.
We’re in classic Smith territory: a truism is turned on its head through a combination of art historical references – classical and pop cultural – and childlike observation, welded together by a fascination with the plasticity of language and with the insights that can be excavated through the use of the common pun.
The lexical similarities of “hand”, “end” and “and” lead her into a meditation on the nature of social and economic exchange, which is illustrated by Wood with film clips: James Stewart begging a bank loan in A Wonderful Life, a beseeching Janet Leigh in Psycho, endless transfers of dollars between gloved hands and tills. Stylish though they may be, Smith suggests, these are not happy transactions.
Against them, she disarmingly pits the Beatles, whose “explosive joyous wake-up call”, coming at the end of 20 years of postwar austerity, was “the opposite of a hand grenade. It was an and grenade.” It could all so easily be dismissed as twee and facile. But beneath the wordplay, the sometimes overwhelming juxtaposition of thoughts and images, lies a transformative optimism based on the power of a single word, “And …” As any decent psychotherapist, any conflict resolver, would tell you, this isn’t actually facile at all.