Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Exhibitions

 

Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, London, N1: In Astratto: Abstraction in Italy 1930–1980, 27 June – 9 September

Organised in conjunction with the Regional Centre for Contemporary Art in Liguria, In Astratto explores 50 years of abstraction in Italy, from the Futurist developments of the interwar period to the geometry of arte concreta, 1960s conceptualism and the subsequently return to a more "painterly" style of pure form and colour. The exhibition reveals the astonishing richness and variety that emerged after the Second World War, featuring artists from Giulio Turcato to Lucio Fontana to Franco Grignani in the tranquil surrounds of the Estorick Collection.

Film       

The Hepworth Wakefield, West Yorkshire: Luke Fowler, 23 June – 14 October

This major new commission by Turner-nominated artist Luke Fowler explores the work of radical socialists Edward Palmer-Thompson, Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart and the northern working class communities that shaped their writing. The Poor Stockinger, the Luddite Cropper and the Deluded Followers of Joanna Southcote is based on research from northern archives and portrays the radicalists’ involvement with the Workers’ Education Association.

Music

 

St Paul’s Cathedral, London, EC4M: Sir Colin Davis/London Symphony Orchestra in Berlioz’s Requiem, 26 June

Sir Colin Davis conducted the first ever concert of the City of London Festival 50 years ago, and he is back to mark the occasion with the London Symphony Orchestra in this performance of Berlioz’s Requiem. The concert begins four weeks of events in the spectacular confines of the City, from concerts at St Paul’s to a tour of the 400-year-old Charterhouse on 30 June, a free talk by Sir Andrew Motion on 4 July and the placing of 50 golden “street pianos” for members of the public around the City.

Literature  

 
Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank, SE1: World Poetry Summit, 26 June

This week sees the start of Poetry Parnassus, the UK’s largest ever poetry festival to mark the culmination of the Cultural Olympiad. Entitled “Finding Poetry’s Place in the World”, the World Poetry Summit will gather poets from across the globe, with artist-in-residence Simon Armitage and a variety of talks about poetry in the 21st century. Alternatively, attend one of the many talks and performances taking place between 26 June and 1 July, including readings by Armitage, Seamus Heaney on 29 June. To mark the launch on Tuesday, 100,000 bookmark-shaped verses will "rain over" the South bank’s Jubilee Gardens from a helicopter.
 

Festival  

The Barbican Centre, London, EC2: Bauhaus by Day, Bauhaus by Night, 23 June

A day of festivities inspired by the joyful community of the Bauhaus to complement the Barbican’s exhibition of the world’s most famous art school. Activities include puppet, kite and accessory-making sessions, a lecture and the launch of Ian Whittlesea’s new book, Mazdaznan Heakth and Breath Culture. All of this is followed by a Bauhaus-themed Costume Party in the Barbican’s Garden Room, with live jazz from the Joshua Jawson Quartet.
 

St Paul's Cathedral: Sir Colin Davis will conduct Berlioz's Requiem in the 50th City of London Festival. Photo: John D McHugh/Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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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