Book review: Exit, by Laura Waddell

Laura Waddell takes in Brexit, Scexit and Sesame Street in her thoughtful meditation on exits. Review by Fiona Shepherd

Laura Waddell
Laura Waddell

Bloomsbury’s non-fiction pocket book series Object Lessons harks back to the days when an album in a record bag or a slim paperback tucked under the arm was a badge of taste, a window on convictions, maybe even a passport to cool.But the content of these short books is no pose, as individual writers treat their chosen everyday subject – from the golf ball to the high heel, to more abstract concepts such as silence and jet lag – as a license for the mind to run free and pursue tangents.

Writer, publisher and award-winning Scotsman columnist Laura Waddell straddles the tangible and the theoretical in her thoughtful contribution on exits. She begins with her own fascination with the exit sign, long associated in her mind with basement nightclubs, where the blinking neon signified a portal to something else, hopefully more exotic or even illicit (rather than just a grubby lane).For Nicola Sturgeon (quoted in the publicity), reading the book has coincided with planning Scotland’s exit from lockdown. There’s no going in through the out door for the foreseeable future.

Inevitably, both Brexit and Scexit also make cameo appearances but mercifully give way quickly to an examination of the prevalence of exits in Sesame Street, where there is comfort in a clear direction.

Even a straightforward search for definitions sends Waddell off in different directions, ruminating that an exit may signal the end of one experience and the start of something else. She explores the positive and negative connotations of emigration (leaving for horizons new) and immigration (a drain on “our” resources) against a news backdrop of the deaths of migrants (neither im- nor e- but somewhere in limbo).

Grimly, not every such departure results in an arrival. But the flight of the so-called “degenerate” creatives from Nazi Germany to the US enriched and shaped 20th century America across the arts while expat Scot Helen Adam arguably came closer to home by moving to the US and reconnecting with her native Scots tongue. The movement of people is inextricably linked with Waddell’s subject, from the role class plays in your ability to plan for a hasty retreat (Hurricane Katrina, Grenfell Tower) or to hold out against eviction when homes become pawns in the real estate game (Kowloon Walled City, Torre David in Caracas), to the deaths of immigrant workers in the New York garment factory fire which ultimately led to the creation of the iconic universal exit sign.

We’re all looking for direction – now with greater piquancy, given the ubiquity of social distancing signs and one-way arrows. Perhaps wisely, Waddell chooses not to tangle with the Big Exit – there is a whole other Object Lesson to learn on end-of-life provision and burial rituals.

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Exit, by Laura Waddell, Bloomsury, £11.20

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