The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Art

Spread across the city, Edinburgh - Festival Promenade, 2 August – 2 September

All Edinburgh Festival punters soon realise that the main problem facing them is how to use their finite time when presented with the choice of such a vast multitude of shows. One answer is to take part in a Festival Promenade. Led by Artist Anthony Schrag, these walks will take you across some of the city’s historical monuments and public spaces, where a series of renowned artists have been invited to create outdoor art in what is the Edinburgh Festival’s most ambitious commissioning programme to date. Artists include Turner Prize winner Susan Philips, Callum Innes and Andrew Miller. If a walk in a park is too conventional for you, Schrag will also be offering climbing tours, alleyway tours, art pub crawls, and afternoon nap tours.

Film

Curzon Soho, London, W1D – Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,  10 – 16 August

In Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry journalist and filmmaker Alison Klayman documents the life of China's most internationally revered contemporary artist. From 2008 to 2010, she accompanies Ai at piviotal moments of his work, family life, and political struggle. The resulting exploration merges art and activism in a portrait, not just of one man, but of contemporary China.

Theatre

The National Theatre, SE1 - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, 24 July - 12 September

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time is a stage version of Mark Haddon's award-winning novel of the same name, which follows the adventures of an autistic teenager, Christopher, as he tries to unravel the mystery surrounding the death of his neighbour's dog. The play was adapted by playwright Simon Stephens and is directed by Marianne Elliott. The performances of Luke Treadaway, Paul Ritter and Nicola Walker have been described by several newspapers as "stellar" and "poignant".

TV

More 4 - What’s my body worth? 13 August, 10pm

In this age of austerity many are considering alternative ways of supplementing their income, yet few have ventured as far as trying to profit from their own embodiment. In this programme journalist Storm Theunissen explores the ethics, legality and stark reality of the industry which preys upon those desperate enough to sell their body - whether it’s working in the sex trade, or selling bodily materials, such as eggs, fluids and even organs.

Music

Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh - Brazil! Brazil! Presents Latin Live, 2–26 August

The people behind Brazil! Brazil!, who wowed Edinburgh in 2010, return to the festival to get audiences on their feet with favela funk and samba reggae. Acts include Magary Lord, Black Semba and Paloma Gomez. Latin Live promises to be an energizing blend of music, dance and vibrant costumes.

Edinburgh Fringe promoters hold up reflective letters (Image: Getty)
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