It's all over Mao, baby blue

China cancels Bob Dylan's Beijing shows.

It seems that China can't get enough of turfing out American institutions: first Google, and now Bob Dylan. The singer-songwriter had planned to tour east Asia this month, but his shows in Beijing were abruptly cancelled by the Chinese authorities, who were anxious, no doubt, that his very presence would lead to the utter collapse of the Communist Party, the liberation of Tibet and revolution on a scale not seen since Jesus of Nazareth walked on water, saying: "Hey, check this."

After a 2008 Björk concert that ended with the Icelandic singer shouting "Tibet, Tibet", China imposed explicit new rules for foreign musicians interested in performing in the country. "Those who used to take part in activities that harm the nation's sovereignty," the government announced, "are firmly not allowed to perform in China."

It's interesting that Dylan, at 68, is still perceived as a threat at all -- even in his politicised youth, his attitudes to socialism were ambivalent, bordering on sympathetic. In songs such as "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues", he was more likely to poke fun at American "patriots" obsessed with rooting out Russian spies than at the card-carrying party members themselves:

I wus lookin' high an' low for them Reds everywhere
I wus lookin' in the sink an' underneath the chair
I looked way up my chimney hole
I even looked deep down inside my toilet bowl
They got away . . .

Besides which, Dylan's post-millennial career has hardly been politically inflammatory. His most recent release was a homely Christmas album; and, true to the sentiment of his towering 1997 blues "Highlands", he has reportedly upped sticks to Scotland to play golf with his brother.

The Guardian suggests that the Chinese ban could restore Dylan's credibility as "the prophet from Desolation Row". Such a mantle, however, never did suit an artist more interested in eternal truths and American mythology than the act of predicting the future.

When Leonard Cohen tried to play Ramallah on the West Bank in 2009, his concert, too, was cancelled, but for very different reasons. His Palestinian bookers pulled the plug amid claims that the show would be a concessionary gesture, with the sole purpose of "balancing" his performance in Tel Aviv.

The accusation was cruel -- the proceeds of Cohen's tour in the region, after all, were intended for a Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation fund started by the singer -- yet the arguments of his detractors raise an interesting point with regard to Dylan's later snub.

Shir Hever, an economist and activist with the Alternative Information Centre, said that Cohen had "missed the point", and that his Tel Aviv gig served as "a kind of validation" of Israel's conduct in the West Bank. Israelis "point out the willingness of people like Madonna and Leonard Cohen to give shows as a sign that Israel is normal, like a European country".

If this logic applies to China, the country's reluctance to send the message of normalcy through its cultural interactions provides a curious insight into its sense of exceptionalism. Keen to assert its independence from the world's major powers (as its growing tensions with the US demonstrate), China seems happy to announce its abnormality, its special place in the changing global hegemony -- which could be bad news for music fans in Beijing.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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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