The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.


This is England 86, Channel 4 (Tuesday 7 September, 10.00 pm)

Shane Meadows makes his TV debut with this four part follow-up to his BAFTA winning film of 2006. It is 1986, and Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) is leaving school for a Britain of uncertainty and unemployment. The series follows the old gang from the film to parallel the experinces of the youth of mid-1980s Britain with those of today.


PROM 66: WAGNER / R. STRAUSS / SCHOENBERG / WEBERN / BERG, Royal Albert Hall (Saturday 4 September, 7:30pm)

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic through selections from the Austro-German repertoire around the turn of the 20th century. The programme encompasses operas and compositions from Wagner, Strauss, Mahler and Schoenberg and includes a performance by celebrated Finnish soprano Karita Mattila.


Pioneering Painters: The Glasgow Boys 1880 - 1900, Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Glasgow (Until 27 September)

Comprising around 100 oil paintings and 50 works on paper by The Glasgow Boys, an influential group of avant-garde artists inspired by the rural life scenes by continental painters of the late nineteenth century. Drawing together major pictures from public and private collections throughout Scotland, this is the first major exhibition devoted to the Glasgow Boys since 1968.


Blitz Season, BBC Radio 4 (Sunday 5 to Friday 10 September)

The BBC is marking the 70th anniversary of the Nazis' nine month assault on civilian Britain with a series of special programmes. Wednesday evening sees Michael Portillo chairing a discussion with Juliet Gardiner, Terry Charman and Ian Kershaw on the damage inflicted, the attitudes and actions in Hitler's High Command and Churchill's War Cabinet, and the lasting legacy of the Blitz.


Enron, Festival Theatre, Chichester (Thursday 9 to Saturday 18 September)

Lucy Prebble's dramatisation of the Enron disaster, directed by Rupert Goold, opens at Chichester this week for the start of its UK tour. Theproduction combines comedy and tragedy to deal with the themes of hubris, greed, frenzy and loss in the financial world, casting new perspectives on both the late 1990s and today's financial world.


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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