Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Music

toe, XOYO, 23 September

Japan’s answer to Sigur Ros. Quite simply one of the finest, most under-appreciated bands in the world, toe finish their first European tour in a decade this Sunday in Shoreditch. Kashikura, Mino, Yamane and Yamazaki have since 2000 created some of the most complex, beautiful and dynamic (mainly) instrumental pop music anywhere in the world. Their latest album For Long Tomorrow incorporated salsa and jazz influences, expanding their large guitar and percussion-based instrumental repertoire to include samples, vibraphones and a Rhodes piano. The band tour in support of their new EP, The Future is Now.

Crafts

Fine Cell Work Pop-Up Shop, 5 Grosvenor St, W1K 4DJ, 10:00-18:00 daily until 30 September

Fine Cell Work is social enterprise which promotes skilled, creative needlework as a means of raising self-esteem, skills and motivation among prison inmates. 75 per cent of the stitchers are men who are paid 37 per centof the final sale price (a far better cut than most). The group have set up a pop-up shop in the heart of Mayfair to display and sell their exquisite needlepoint and embroidered home furnishings, many to templates by designers such as Nicky Haslam, Cath Kidston and Daisy de Villeneuve. There will also be ‘sew-cials’, ‘get to know and sew’ sessions and talks with ex-prisoners about their experiences participating in the Fine Cell Work prison programme.

Film

Safar: A Journey Through Popular Arab Cinema, ICA, 21 – 27 September

Described as “the most ambitious season of popular Arab film ever seen in the UK”, Safar aims to make Arabic film accessible for a new British audience, whilst at the same time providing a real treat for connoisseurs of world cinema. Curator Omar Kholeif hopes that it will entertain and absorb, as well as provide an alternative entry-point for understanding the Middle East. Read the New Statesman’s interview with him here.

Festivals

Split Festival, Ashbrooke Sports Club, Sunderland, 21, 22 and 23 September

"The Best Event in Sunderland" returns this year to showcase everything that’s great about contemporary north eastern music, food, fashion and comedy. Part-organised by indie-rock band The Futureheads, who headline on Sunday evening, the line-up includes Mercury nominees Field Music, The Unthanks and Kathryn Williams, as well as names such as Pulled Apart by Horded, Public Image and King Creosote. Other fine outfits not to be missed include Let’s Buy Happiness, This Ain’t Vegas and Algiers. In response to the poor job situation for young people across the region, festival organisers have frozen last year’s ticket prices and introduced a new range of concessions for students and the unwaged.

Literature

Soho Literary Festival, The Soho Theatre, 21 Dean St, W1D 3NE, 27 – 30 September

Presented by The Oldie, this year’s Soho Literary Festival returns with an elegant line-up featuring former PM John Major on the wonders of music hall, Michael Frayn discussing his novel Skios and a classics quiz hosted by Cambridge don Mary Beard. A full programme is available online and all events take place in the three cosy auditoriums at the Soho Theatre. Discounts are available for those books to attend more than one event.

The Futureheads, who part-organised Split Festival. Photograph: Getty Images
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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage