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How Wintering captured the strange beauty of the Pandemic year

Katherine May’s book about retreating from everyday life was released a month before lockdown, yet has become an emblem of it for readers around the world. Here Alice Vincent explores how Wintering gave us all something to cling onto.

It’s uncanny to read Wintering, Katherine May’s fourth book, at the end of the 18 months we’ve just had. I found myself underlining several passages throughout the first dozen pages out of the sheer familiarity of what May writes. On page one: "The photographs I have of that day seem absurd now that I know what was about to happen". She is writing about the party that pre-empts her husband’s burst appendix, but it could have been snapshots from a wedding in early March 2020, of two people hugging in a selfie, taken as Covid cases ratcheted up in late winter.

Wintering is not a book about lockdown, but it has become one. Released in February, a month before bookshops started to close nationwide, it is a memoir about the year in May’s life when she "wintered", her term for retreating from the frenetic daily demands of her life and career due to illness, but also as an act of personal experimentation. What happens when we just stop?

May’s investigations of wintering take her to the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, to saunas in her local leisure centre, to a dormouse rescue centre and to Stonehenge at Solstice. In the process, she reminds us of how modern life has wrenched us away from necessary fallow seasons in our life. The ebb to the flow of constant busyness.

'However it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely and deeply painful'

But the book also shows May educating her son at home, pickling windfalls, buying food from the greengrocers on a daily basis, baking for the hell of it and swimming in the sea. Things, in short, that the luckier among have done more of this year. “That was a really unusual thing to do a couple of years ago and now everyone’s done it,” she tells me over the phone. “I keep apologising to people and saying, ‘I promise I didn’t make this happen’. It feels a little bit like that sometimes.”

“Wintering is a season in the cold”, May writes. “However it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely and deeply painful.”

It was summer 2019 when Bianca Bexton, May’s editor, first read the manuscript. And yet, she says, “it seemed a beautiful way of expressing this thing we all go through, the ups and downs of life as seasons, and how we need to be kinder to ourselves. It really grabbed me as something people would want to read.”

'May dances around everyday subjects with steely interest, making it impossible not to be taken in by them'

Wintering straddles the small gulf between nature books and wellness ones, mostly by treating each subject with an admirable lightness. There is no woo-woo preaching here, no indulgent passages on the first frost. Rather, May dances around everyday subjects with steely interest, making it impossible not to be taken in by them.

It is after one particularly deep and velvety sleep that I wake and read, in the shy December morning light, May’s passage on how nightimes worked before the Industrial Revolution. "It was normal to divide the night into two periods of sleep: the ‘first’, or ‘dead’, sleep, lasting from the evening until the early hours of the morning; and the ‘second’, or ‘morning’, sleep, which took the slumberer safely to daybreak. In between, there was an hour or more of wakefulness known as the ‘watch’ in which ‘families rose to urinate, smoke tobacco, and even visit close neighbours’."

I find this fascinating. Since March 2020, I’ve not used an alarm to wake up, letting my body clock do the work instead. In summer, this meant I rose with the dawn chorus, but as the days have grown shorter I’ve been sleeping in later than I have in years of commuting. It feels as if my body is claiming back its metronome.

“If you let it, if you have your room dark enough, your sleep will naturally adapt to having much more sleep in winter than in summer,” May tells me. “Scandinavians barely sleep at all in summer, they’re up at midnight washing their car because they can’t sleep. We’ve kind of lost that sense that sleep will sort us out pretty well if we leave it to but we don’t know how to do that any more, we’re too busy trying to measure it with an app and that doesn’t really work.”

'The book seems to morph in people’s hands to be about them'

One curiosity of Wintering, May has noticed, is that people project their own lives onto it. “It seems to morph in people’s hands to be about them,” she says. “people who have suffered from depression will think it’s a book about depression. People who have been ill think it’s a book about chronic illness, or acute illness. People who have been bereaved think of it as a book about bereavement. It’s so interesting. It seems to undergo a kind of metamorphosis.”

I tell her that, for me, the book acted as part-cautionary tale, part sage, on the matter of being addicted to busyness. The May we meet at the book’s beginning is one who is juggling a demanding job with a writing practice, a working mother and wife who has attempted to make bedroom curtains three times, each time forgetting she has already bought fabric. “I always thought that I, so very wise, would never succumb to work addiction,” she writes. “But here I am, having worked so hard, and for so long, that I’ve made myself sick. And, worst of all, I’ve nearly forgotten how to rest.”  

May murmurs politely in response, much as I imagine she has to the dozens of other readers who have shared their take on the book. “People message me saying, ‘I’ve been wintering’, and tell you a really tragic, awful story about something that has happened to them,” she says. “It’s so lovely to feel like you’ve helped but I’m also not a therapist. But it’s kind of amazing to feel you’ve written something that helps in a difficult time.”

Bexton agrees. “All you want with a book, really, is that it touches people in a kind of indelible way. And this has.”

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Image: Stuart Simpson/Tim Lane/Penguin

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