In the Critics this week

Paul Morley travels on the Tube, Richard Overy on David Cannadine, Kate Mossman on Justin Bieber and much more.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, Paul Morley relives the experience of listening to his first Sony Walkman on the London Underground in 1979. “I … imagined I was the first person to sit on the Tube listening to music of my own choosing.” That music would have been the avant-garde rock that Morley himself, in the pages of the New Musical Express, had christened “post-punk”: “It was a culmination, rearrangement, refinement of experimental ideas, sounds and principles instigated by punk.” And much of it was influenced by the German group Can, whom Morley describes as “less a rock group than a compact orchestra, a jazz collective, a cartel of dreamers … This was my kind of pop group.”

In Books, the historian Richard Overy reviews David Canndine’s The Undivided Past: History Beyond Our Differences. Cannadine chastises his fellow historians for concentrating on conflict rather than on what human beings have had in common down the ages. Overy is not convinced. “There remain profound differences in the world that have deep historical roots … Appeals to a common humanity are not going to change that.”

Also in Books: John Sutherland defends Stephen Spender against charges laid by James Smith in his book British Writers and MI5 Surveillance, 1930-60 (“Spender has attracted more than his share of sneers during his lifetime and after … Among the admirable scholarship in this book, there is, I think, an injustice”); Simon Heffer reviews Does Spelling Matter? by Simon Horobin  (“This book is a sane, comprehensive and authoritative lesson in why we spell the way we do and why, in order to preserve the richness, subtlety and history of our language, it is right that we keep doing so”); Jon Day reviews John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son (“The focus of Blood Horses is Sullivan’s relationship with his father, a poetically inclined sports journalist”); Claire Lowdon reviews This Is the Way, the second novel by Irish writer Gavin Corbett (“This fresh and funny novel is a devastating love story … that stays with you long after you’ve finished reading”); Talitha Stevenson reviews Andrew Wilson’s biography of Sylvia Plath, Mad Girl’s Love Song (“For all the posthumous inventions, some of the Plath fantasia was created by Sylvia Plath [herself]”).

Elsewhere in the Critics: Kate Mossman is forced to wait two hours for Justin Bieber to take the stage at the O2 (“Bieber comes on stage at 10.20pm, which is a bit of an issue on a Monday night for an audience of 20,000 children …”); our film critic Ryan Gilbey reviews Rufus Norris’s Broken and Robot & Frank, directed by Jake Schreier (“The joys of Robot & Frank are numerous”); Rachel Cooke reviews ITV’s Broadchurch and Mayday on BBC1 (“Aidan Gillen [in Mayday] is so compelling, it’s almost embarrassing”); Antonia Quirke listens to After Saddam on Radio 4 (“Presenter Hugh Sykes had no trouble digging up horror stories”).

PLUS: “Tremor”, a poem by Fiona Sampson, and Will Self’s Madness of Crowds.

Justin Bieber on stage (finally) at the O2 (Photo: Getty Images)
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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis