Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Art

Bela Kolarova exhibition, 31 Jan – 7 April, Raven Row, London

A retrospective of the work of Czech artists Bela Kolarova (1923-2010). This is the first major survey of her work outside of her home country. Kolarova’s “light drawings” and “derealised portraits” pioneered an art based on objects associated with domesticity and the feminine, rooted in the context of Cold War and exile. The works on display will cover Kolarova’s career, including documentary photographs from the late fifties, camera-less experiments, “arranged” photographs of objects and assemblages from the sixties, as well as make-up drawings and assemblages from the seventies and eighties.

Opera

La Traviata, 2 Feb – 3 March 2013, London Coliseum

Verdi’s masterpiece will be staged at the Coliseum. One of the Verdi’s most moving and popular operas, La Traviata tells the story of a courtesan sacrificing her hopes for her lover’s reputation.

In a new production, acclaimed director Peter Konwitschny uses modern uncluttered staging to present the tragic and moving opera. Compelling characters and famed melodies make this an engaging and emotional performance. Starring American soprano Corinne Winters in her European debut, British lyric tenor Ben Johnson and internationally acclaimed baritone Anthony Michaels-Moore.

Classical Music

One Night in Vienna, 27 January, Royal Festival Hall, London

Johann Strauss Dancers present a combination of Viennese music, song and dance in glorious period costumes. Conductor Rainer Hersch guides performers through Radetzky March, The Blue Danube Waltz, The Laughing Song from Die Fledermaus, Thunder and Lightning Polka, and Voices Of Spring, as well as Tchaikovsky, Lehar and many more. The Johann Strauss Orchestra performs with guest soprano Charlotte Ellett.

Festival

Burns Night Celebrations, 25 January, Edinburgh

“Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face, Great chieftain o the puddin'-race!” Wrote the eminent Scot Rabbie Burns in “Address to a Haggis.” If you are in Edinburgh this weekend there myriad opportunities to raise a glass to the poet. According to robertburns.org “Burns Suppers range from stentoriously formal gatherings of esthetes and scholars to uproariously informal rave-ups of drunkards and louts,” so take your pick. The Whiski bar and restaurant in Edinburgh will be hosting an evening of traditional Scottish fiddle music, accompanied by haggis neeps and tatties.

Theatre

Count Magnus: Two Ghost Stories by M R James 05-09 Febuary, The Brewery, Bristol

As if South-West England wasn’t chilling enough, the Nunkie Theatre Company will be bringing ghost stories to Bristol in February. Two short stories by antiquarian ghost story master, Monague Rhodes James will be performed at the Brewery Theatre.

150 years since the birth of M R James, Robert Lloyd Parry will be retelling his stories as a one man show. The first of these tales, Count Magnus, is a thriller set in Sweden about the consequences of travel-writer’s over-inquisitiveness. Denmark is then the setting for Number 13, a tale of a haunted hotel room.

Celebrate the poetry of Robert Burns this Saturday (Getty Images)
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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