In search of feral apples and underground men

My village, just outside Barnsley on the A635, used to supply the workers for lots of coal mines: Darfield Main, Grimethorpe, Houghton Main, Dearne Valley Drift, Goldthorpe, Barnburgh, Cortonwood; names of closed pits ringing like bells.

It’s a Sunday evening in late, late November and I’m just about to walk down through the village with my wife to her mother’s for tea. There will be homemade pies and celery sticks in a jug. I’ve got my thick coat on and my lucky Barnsley FC hat, and I’m carrying my carrier bag and my stick. Actually, it’s not really my stick: it was the one my mother had for the last few years before she died, the one she hung on to in the hope she might walk again.

The sky is clear as we set off and the full and insistent moon lights up the field behind the high wall; the herons are there, four of them sitting on the bare earth like constructions, like toys. We stand and watch them not moving, being still. Behind the field the Grimethorpe bypass is lit by passing cars, and the huge ugly Asos warehouse glows beside the hill that used to be the Houghton Main pit stack.

I’m pointing with my stick at the stars. I wish I knew more about the names of the constellations. Maybe I could just make some up: Uncle Frank’s Cap. The Unravelling Muffler. Somebody did it once, after all. Beyond Asos is the RSPB site, the ducks rising and falling from the water to the air and back again beside the double-glazing place.

My village, just outside Barnsley on the A635, used to supply the workers for lots of coal mines: Darfield Main, Grimethorpe, Houghton Main, Dearne Valley Drift, Goldthorpe, Barnburgh, Cortonwood; names of closed pits ringing like bells. Winding gear and slag heaps were slapped on to landscapes that had hardly changed over decades and miners like my father-in-law walked to work down a bridle path that had been there for centuries.

There was a persistent rumour of a mandrake growing in the swampy patches near the river; “When tha pulls ‘em up they scream!” Jim Marsden said one afternoon as we stood together in the drizzle at the top of the hill listening for sounds of the men working in the mines underneath. Jim insisted that some days you could hear them. “Blokes coughing” he’d say, “and blokes swearing.”

I walk this route every morning at the crack of dawn and I tweet about it; I see the most amazing things and I struggle to squeeze them into 140 characters, like the time I saw that man in a camouflage jacket walk by that man in a hi-vis jacket and as they passed they cancelled each other out.

The owner of the big house put a wall up some time in the last century so that he wouldn’t be able to see men like my father-in-law walking to Houghton Main, and now the workers from Asos stroll that way too, a historical continuation with boots and snap bags. I never found the mandrake but there are three or four plum trees down there, grown from spat stones; the jam glows (metaphorically) at the back of my pantry.

Now we’re at the top of the bridle path and I pull the carrier bag out of my pocket and get my stick ready. This is the reason for the stick – the apple tree by the wall, still full of fruit even this late in the year. Us hunters of the feral apple know what a good year 2013 has been: that mini orchard by the roundabout at Junction 37 of the M1, that huge crop of green beauties across from Tesco’s at Stairfoot near the fossil bank that my kids used to dig in, those heavy cookers that fall to the ground beside the fishing tackle shop in Low Valley.

And these: Yeats’s “silver apples of the moon” hanging just out of reach. Potential crumbles that I poke with my stick until they tumble and I catch them in the carrier. Some are as small as marbles but I’ll take them home anyway. Some roll into the road and a car passes and somebody beeps their horn and gestures to me. It’s either a thumbs-up or a raised pair of fingers. You can’t tell round here, in this Barnsley of the mind where layers of history cover the ground like fallen apples. I’ll just keep poking with my mother’s stick.


This season has ssen a bumper crop of British apples. Photo: Nicolo' Minerbi/Luzphoto/Redux

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The North

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis