The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.


Barbican Centre, London, EC2: The Cinematic Orchestra, 30 June

The Barbican hosts Jason Swinscoe's Ninja Tunes project. Combining jazz improvisation, sampled soundtrack music, film images and dance music tropes, this orchestra achieves a variety and beauty not to be underestimated. Originally written for a string quartet, from visuals such as René Clair’s surrealist Entr’acte (The Cinematic Orchestra) and Peter Tscherkassky’s Outer Space (Dorian Concept and Tom Chant), the final product has a depth of emotion which can take the breath away. This is their final date in the UK before they move on to Italy.


Hampstead Heath, London: Walking Book Club, 1 July

This week the book-lovers from the Walking Book Club will turn to Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent. Written as a fictional companion to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, this novel follows newly-widowed Lady Slane as she rents a house in Hampstead to begin a new life. Introducing the reader to a variety of Lady Slane’s new friends and a few figures from her past, this novel extols the virtues of following one’s desires, no matter how late in life. This free event, open to all readers and their walking companions, offers participants a chance to discuss the book in an informal setting.


Queen of Hoxton, London, EC2: Easy Rider, 1st July

The Rooftop Film Club gives cinema lovers an opportunity to see classic films in the open air. On Sunday they give their screen over to Easy Rider, the 1969 classic directed by and starring Dennis Hopper. Easy Rider is the tale of two bikers who head from LA to Florida to retire after a major cocaine sale. A cult favourite, this film discusses themes of freedom, boundaries and establishment and offers a detailed portrait of its time.


AE Harris and mac Birmingham, Birmingham: Be Festival 2nd July- 8th July

This year’s Be Festival is the third to be held in Birmingham as part of a Europe-wide project to unite cultures and individuals through theatre. This year, mac Birmingham will host the winning show from the BE festival 2011, As the Flames rose, we danced to the sirens, the sirens by the Sleepwalk Collective. AE Harris will show four thirty-minute shows each night from  this year’s entrants, each accompanied by dinner, music, drinks and an after show party. All shows come from across the continent and are designed to be viewed and understood by everyone, regardless of language.


Piper Gallery, London W1: Inaugural exhibition: Then and Now: Edward Allington and Vaughan Grylls

This week marks the launch of a new contemporary art gallery. Piper Gallery will represent artists who are continuing to produce innovative work at least 40 years into their careers. Those exhibiting include Edward Allington, Tess Jaray and Francis West.

The Cinematic Orchestra will be playing at the Barbican Centre on 30th June. Photo: Getty Images
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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