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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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