The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.


George Catlin: American Indian Portraits. National Portrait Gallery, London WC2, 7-23 March

The National Portrait Gallery’s latest exhibition is a collection of over 50 portraits by Pennsylvanian-born artist George Catlin (1796-1872). His portraits were intended to document the Native American peoples and their way of life. They are regarded as an important and evocative record of America’s indigenous peoples. This will be the first time that they have been shown together outside America since they were returned in the 1850s. 


Written on Skin. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London WC2, 8 -22 March

Award-winning director Katie Mitchell brings new light to a tale of deception and guile by author Martin Crimp and composer George Benjamin. Written on Skin draws on a 12th-century Occitan legend about a rich lord, Guillaume de Cabestanh, who commissions a book of  illuminations by an artist. The lord hopes the book will immortalise his political power, as well as documenting a sense of domestic order embodied by his obedient wife Agnes. The process of creating the book is the catalyst for his wife's rebellion. After a first successful attempt at seduction, Agnes uses her new found intimacy with the illuminator to modify the content of the book, forcing the husband, in a final act of provocation, to see her as she really is. Themes of passion, violence and love are given a lick of contemporary paint as the drama unfolds under the gaze of angels who watch over the stage. 


Kinoteka, 11th Polish Film Festival. Various Locations (London, Liverpool, Belfast, Edinburgh) 7- 17 March

This week sees the 11th edition of Polish film festival, Kinoteka taking place in a number of locations in the UK. This year, along with a mix of films by fresh and established directors, Kinoteka will be hosting free film workshops for participants of all ages. These workshops include sessions for writers and directors, and animation workshops for children aged between 10 and 14. A brand new short film competition, held in conjunction with the festival, seeks entries from UK filmmakers inspired by Roman Polanski. 


This House. National Theatre, London SE1, until 11 May 

“This country is being kept alive on aspirin, when what it needs is electric bloody shock therapy”

The year is 1974. The location, the House of Commons. The UK faces an economic crisis and a hung parliament. In parliament there reigns a culture hostile to co-operation, where party votes are won or lost by the slenderest margins and fist fights in the Commons bars are a regular occurrence. James Graham’s This House pares down politics to the realities of behind-the-scenes horsetrading.  This House examines some of the main issues facing the Wilson and Callaghan governments up to the vote of no confidence in March 1979. 

Native Americans are the subject of the George Catlin exhibition at the NPG
ahisgett - Flickr
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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