Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Cinema

18th London Turkish Film Festival. 21st February - 3rd March. Odeon West End, ICA, Rio Cinema and Cine Lumiere.

The festival begins with the Open Night Gala, the climax of which is the UK Premiere of Yılmaz Erdoğan’s ‘The Butterfly’s Dream’, starring Kıvanç Tatlıtuğ, Belçim Bilgin and Mert Fırat. Five films are competing for the Golden Wings Digiturk Digital Distribution Award, one of which is the new film from Reha Erdem, ‘Jin’, which screened for the first time just a few days ago at the Berlin Film Festival. Beside a wealth of new and exciting cinema, there will also be events with features, documentary programmes, a selection of outstanding short films, Q&A’s and a Workshop with Reha Erdem.

Art

Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901. 14thFebruary - 26th May. Courtauld Gallery

The Courtauld is presenting the opportunity to re-live the exhibition which launched Picasso as an artist. At only nineteen Picasso collected these rapidly produced, in many ways derivative works in Paris. The works demonstrate Picasso’s emerging aesthetic beneath the influences of Gauguin and Van Gogh. The exhibition includes pieces of remarkable assurance, such as ‘Child With A Dove’, and raw youthfulness, such as ‘Spanish Dancer’. The Courtauld allows us to witness the germination of the twentieth century’s most important artist, which the Telegraph has called ‘a tight, compelling, and beautifully installed exhibition’, and the Independent “a real stunner”.

Ballet

Aeternum. February 22nd – March 14th. Royal Opera House.

Christopher Wheeldon, who at 39 has already made over sixty ballets, is choreographing the world premiere of his Aeternum at the Royal Opera House, in a programme which includes Apollo and 24 Preludes. Wheeldon is using Benjamin Britten’s ‘Sinfonia da Requiem’, and directing Royal Ballet principal Marianela Nunez. He has put this performance together in little over a month, and it promises to be a vibrant treat for fans of his abstract, contemporary classic style.

Opera

Medea. 15th February - 16th March. English National Opera.

David McVicar’s production of Charpentier’s opera of sorcery and vengeance, starring Sarah Connolly, has garnered superb reviews. Baroque and bloodthirsty, it is the tale of the scorned lover of Jason of the Argonauts, who murders their two children when she learns that he will marry another. It is an opera teeming with violence and the supernatural, and Connolly, its mezzo-soprano, gives a highly-praised performance. Medea is conducted by period specialist Christian Curnyn.

If you fear that by the interval you and your company may require a relaxant (a distinct possibility) the ENO offers the opportunity to order champagne along with your tickets.

Comic Books

SuperLab. 20Th and 27th February. Bedroom Bar, 62-68 Rivington Street, Shoreditch.

Now for something different. A group of science Phd students and post-doctoral researchers from UCL and Goldsmiths are hoping to demonstrate to a willing public how comic books can enlighten our real-world experiences. An interactive event called ‘Crime’ on Wednesday 27th will discuss how science can explain artistic ability and whether illegal drugs can bolster creativity. Moreover, stalls will be set up to determine your own superpower (lie-detector cheating and the like). It might also be prudent to note that the event is free, and held in a bar. Golly gee whillikers Batman!

Pablo Picasso (RALPH GATTI/AFP/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