Cold War returns

The similarities between Afghanistan and Indiana, USA plus other tales from the arts world

So much for détente. The Cold War (Arts, circa.2007) is back on, complete with all those wonderfully droll references to sub-zero temperatures. Just when the Royal Academy appeared to have gained permission for the From Russia exhibition, British ambassador Tony Brenton was summoned to explain to the foreign ministry why British Council offices in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg had opened despite a demand to cease their activities from January 1st.

Of course, the rather sour irony of all this is that, back in the land of Shakespeare & Fry, the Arts Council continues its cull. Following on from Equity’s gnashing of teeth last week, the Tangrum Theatre led London in silent protest, whilst the National’s artistic director Nicholas Hytner (despite being head of one of the 75% of organisations to receive increased funding) branded the ACE’s spending review a ‘strategic catastrophe’ and referred to its regional bodies as those ‘unacceptable fiefdoms’.

Middle Eastern Politik

Due to return to the Royal Festival Hall in a weeks, the Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim became the first person in the world to possess both Israeli and Palestinian passports after being granted Palestinian citizenship for his efforts promoting cultural exchange between Israel and the Arab world. Presented the passport after a Beethoven recital in Ramallah the pioneer of peace and understanding said: ‘I hope that my new status will be an example of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence’.

Such tolerance and understanding does not appear, however, to be notable attributes of the Afghan state-run Film Council. Wary of the reaction to the rape scene in the film adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, they banned both its import and exhibition. The incredulity felt by many Afghans at what has been perceived as an inflammatory and anti-Islamic act prompted Paramount Pictures to fly the film’s three child actors to a secret location in the United Arab Emirates, scared for their safety. The only other place where the story was also nearly banned due to a clamorous reaction to the rape scene? Indiana, USA.

Let It Be Known, There's Money in Poetry

£15,000 worth to be precise. Sean O'Brien scooped an unprecedented poetry double (and the increased cash prize), after adding the TS Elliot prize for poetry to the Forward gong he collected last year. To say that poetry is the new investment banking might be a bit hasty however; I don't see Tony Blair (proud employee of JP Morgan) penning his own 'Ode to Haditha' on the side just yet.

In music, Radiohead continued to disrupt the industry's economic stability, playing a EMI combusted all on its own and Jarvis Cocker slipped effortlessly on to Radio 4, offering a refreshingly passionate assessment of fanzines.

Elsewhere, in Italy, nude models took heart from the Hollywood pickets and went on strike for better pay and conditions (it's 'a tough, cold job' noted Antonella Migliorini,42) and everybody (apart from our own Ryan Gilbey) gushed, fawned and bowed at the feet of the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men. One suspects, in many cases before the film was even watched.

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear