Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Film and discussion

Made in Birmingham, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, 12 May

A special screening of Made in Birmingham: Reggae, Punk, Bhangra followed by a discussion. Professor Roger Shannon, of dge Hill University, will introduce a Q&A session with the film’s director Deborah Aston and executive producer Jez Collins. Famous names from influential Birmingham bands, such as UB40, Musical Youth and many more, talk about their distinctive musical styles in this fascinating documentary.

 

Theatre

The Seagull by Anton Chekhov, Northern Stage, Newcastle, from 14 May

This new production of the Chekhov classic is a collaboration between Headlong, “the country’s most exciting touring company” (Daily Telegraph), renowned for their innovative, accessible re-imaginings of classic texts, and the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton. Directed by Blanche McIntyre, this production has been widely praised for its innovative staging.

 

Exhibition

Houghton Revisited, Houghton Hall, Norfolk, opens 17 May

The art collection of Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, sold to Catherine the Great to adorn the Hermitage in St Petersburg, will be reassembled in its spectacular original setting of Houghton Hall for the first time in over 200 years. "Houghton Revisited" runs from 17 May-29 September and is a unique opportunity to view one of the most celebrated art collections assembled in 18th-century Europe. The display will include paintings from the English, French, Italian, Flemish and Spanish schools, with masterpieces by Van Dyck, Poussin, Albani, Rubens, Rembrandt, Velazquez and Murillo.

 

Concert

A SCREAM AND AN OUTRAGE 1: Oceanic Verses, Barbican Centre, London, 10 May

The "A Scream and an Outrage" weekend kicks off with two world premieres of specially-commissioned new pieces by Nico Muhly and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang. The BBC Singers open the evening with Muhly’s latest composition, An Outrage; followed by Lang’s new percussion concerto entitled Man Made, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with Brooklyn-based innovators So Percussion. The second half features the European premiere concert performance of Italian-American composer Paola Prestini’s new multimedia opera, Oceanic Verses - in a new version for the Barbican stage. It is a multi media opera, a collage of found folk music reworked into a single, contemporary classical music score by the prolific American composer Paola Prestini.
 

Festival

Scratch festival, Battersea Arts Centre, from 17 May

The Scratch festival provides the opportunity to invent the future of theatre, placing the artist and audience in a creative dialogue to develop new ideas. Audiences will be invited to work-in-progress showings from Adrian Howells, Made In China, RashDash and Sleepwalk Collective and others. Past shows to have emerged from this method include Jerry Springer the Opera and The Paper Cinema’s Odyssey.

Bands such as UB40 feature in the documentary Made in Birmingham (Photo: Getty Images)
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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