Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Art

From Death to Death and Other Small Tales, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh 15 Dec-8 Sept 2013

Presenting masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the D Daskalopoulos Collection, one of the most private important collections of modern and contemporary art, this exhibition offers the visitor 130 works.

The focus of the exhibition is the importance of the body as a theme in 20th and 21st century art practice. Visitors will be able to see works that have not previously been available to view in Scotland. The D.Daskalopoulos Collection has developed since 1994 and artists include Marcel Duchamp, Tracey Emin and Marina Abramovic.

Comedy

Josie Long, Romance and Adventure, BAC, London SW11, 19-21 December

The comedian is on tour with her sixth comedy solo show, Romance and Adventure, which was also nominated for the Edinburgh comedy award for best show (the third year in a row she's received that nomination). The show promises high-end adventure pursuits and even a moment when Josie will pretend to be some kind of posh Godzilla on the rampage. Focusing on the issues facing those turning 30, including the struggle to keep going when you are tired and the myriad doubts one faces.

Theatre

Privates on Parade, Noel Coward Theatre, London WC2, until 2 March 2013

Having opened in the West End a few days ago, this production has already received rave reviews in the national newspapers for the star performance from Simon Russell Beale. The play, directed here by Michael Grandage, is a comedy set against the murderous backdrop of the Malaysian campaign at the end of the Second World War. Private Steven Flowers is sent to the Song and Dance Unit in South East Asia where he meets Captain Terri Dennis, played by Russell Beale. Private Flowers soon learns from the flamboyant captain that becoming a man is more than just the uniform.

Julius Caesar, Donmar Warehouse, London WC2, until 9 February

This all-female production of one of history’s most prominent figures in Shakespeare’s play has likewise been successful among critics. It is Phyllida Lloyd’s first appearance as director since the Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady, and it is a return that is certainly lauded. Although Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry’s casting in Twelfth Night in an all-male production appears to have gained more headlines, the Donmar’s show is set to be a hit with the focus on the all-important issues of power and corruption.

Music

London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev, Barbican Centre, London EC2, 19 December

As part of UBS Soundscapes, the London Symphony of Orchestra will be performing next weekin the Barbican Hall. They will perform Szymanowski’s Symphony No 4 ("Symphonie Concertante"), his Violin Concerto No 2 and Brahms's Symphony No 4, conducted by Russian conductor, Valery Gergiev. Gergiev will be conducting several performances between 19 December and 31 March 2013.

Tracey Emin, whose work will feature in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art's latest exhibition on 15 December onwards. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/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