The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.


Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert Galleries, London, SW1 & W1: Bridget Riley - Works 1960 – 1966, 23 May – 13 July

Bridget Riley’s meticulously crafted monochrome canvasses were something of a sensation in the 1960s. This exhibition - held in both of Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert’s London spaces - will be the first ever solely dedicated to Riley’s black and white paintings. On their notoriously “optical” and “trompe l’oeil” qualities, Riley wrote in 1965: “The basis of my paintings is this: that in each of them a particular situation is stated…I have never made any use of scientific theory or scientific data, though I am well aware that the contemporary psyche can manifest startling parallels on the frontier between the arts and the sciences.” Whether you call her work painterly or mathematical, it’s undeniably as engrossing as it was 40 years ago.


Asia House, London, W1: Festival of Asian Literature, until 31 May

Asia House, the UK’s “leading pan-Asian organisation”, is currently hosting a two week festival that celebrates the writing of the Asian continent. Founded in 2006, the festival can proudly call itself “the only festival in the UK that is dedicated to writing about Asia and Asians, from the Persian Gulf to the Pacific.” This year sees another engaging program of events, debates and discussions that will touch on themes such as Women, Power and Politics, The Arab Spring and Asia, The Geo-Politics of Oil, Women and Water in Pakistan, Persianate Poetry and more. There will also be family friendly events like cooking classes and yoga.


London Transport Museum, London, WC2: Mind the Map: Inspiring art, design and cartography, until 28 October

Opening today, this intriguing new exhibition at the London Transport Museum probes the “inspiration, history and creativity behind London transport maps”. Promising to be the largest of its kind, and drawing extensively from the museum's impressive archive, expect to see gorgeous cartographic works that map not only a city, but evolving perceptions of design, functionality, journeys and identity. The display with include “geographical, diagrammatic and decorative” transport maps, as well as – of course – an exploration of the impact of the iconic London Tube map on “cartography, art and the public imagination”.


Weavers Field and Brick Lane, London, EC2: Boishakhi Mela, 19 and 20 May

This explosive celebration - now in its 14th year - rings in the Bengali New Year with a two-day bash that sees the self-titled “Banglatown” district of Bethnal Green transform into the consummate outdoor festival, with a line-up of acclaimed international performers, parades, music, dance, rickshaw rides and culinary delights. Having worked closely with the Tower Hamlets Council, Boishakhi Mela aims to showcase the best in Bangladeshi talent, arts, heritage and culture. While the primary fanfare will be taking place in Weavers Field, the nearby Brick Lane will also soak up the atmosphere, with most restaurants opening up for alfresco dining and live music.

Various UK Venues: Museums at Night, 18 – 20 May

Museums at Night is Culture24's annual after-hours celebration when the UK’s museums, galleries, and historic properties promise “to come alive when darkness falls”. With hundreds of evening events across the country, this will be an almost inescapable three days of glorious late-night madness and cultural curiosities. Amongst the many highlights: Experimental culinary craftsmen Bompas and Parr stage a jelly installation onboard the SS Great Britain in Bristol, Terry O’Neil discusses his photography at the Ragged School Museum in London, torch-lit tours through the Museum Discovery Centre in Leeds, sleepovers and midnight feasts in Dover Castle, the Sunderland Winter Gardens and the British Museum, and a late night-soiree a the Somerset House. What bliss!

Bridget Riley in 1963. (Photo: Romano Cagnoni)
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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