I don’t need my phone to tell me where I am

And then, to top it all, the mobile phone goes phut, after years of faithful service. I had assumed that reliance on the cheapest, most basic of these instruments might have been some proof against entropy: there are, after all, fewer things to go wrong. But no. There then follow two spirit-depleting hours in the Carphone Warehouse on Marylebone Road trying to get the call centre at Vodafone to grasp the basics of renewing my contract.

Well, not entirely spirit-depleting: by the end of the affair, I feel as though I and Asif, the young man who has been hurling himself against the wall of Vodafone's obtuseness on my behalf, have become bonded in the way that soldiers under fire become lifelong friends. I knew he was going to be all right when I showed him my defunct phone, which is of a design and vintage that certainly pre-dates his ability to shave. Basically: he did not laugh or sneer at me. I liked having a cheap and crappy phone: it meant I could walk through the valley of evil (the Uxbridge Road) using it without fear that any mugger would find it covetable.

Unfortunately, the Carphone Warehouse (which, I learn from a subsequent communication from them, now has a royal warrant; and I don't know what to begin to think about that) does not carry any such antediluvian phones any more, and I have been obliged to upgrade to what I gather
is called in the argot of the streets a "smartphone". This comes with several features, few of which can be strictly said to be life-enhancing. But they certainly are distracting. The first one I made use of is the way that my children were outraged that their old-style dad now had a phone which was significantly more advanced than theirs. "It's just wrong," they say, and try to steal it from me when I'm not looking.

Lucid dreaming

But there's more. It is interesting, if not entirely practical, to know what the weather in Caracas is like. It seems to have more than its fair share of thunderstorms. I enjoy a thunderstorm, and wonder whether moving there would add richness to my life, or whether I would get bored with them after a while.

Worse than useless is the application (you will not find me using the word "app" any time soon, that one instance excepted) which tells me my location.

Now, as a general rule, I tend to know where I am at any given moment of the day. Even when my dreams tell me I am in a Bond villain's submarine lair, or on Gallifrey, or in Caracas for that matter, there is still a residual awareness that I am actually in my own bed (the times when I am in someone else's bed would appear to be over).

More irritatingly, the information it gives me as to my whereabouts is invariably wrong. At the moment it tells me I am at 114 Baker Street, which is even more inaccurate than usual, and presumably thinks that I am enjoying a crayfish and rocket sandwich at that address's branch of Eat. I am not. I am in the Hovel, writing this. I suppose it might be useful to know where I was if I had been kidnapped and bundled into the back of a van with blacked-out windows, or, Tintin-like, incarcerated in the bowels of Marlinspike Hall while my captors waited for me to divulge the Secret of the Unicorn; but there is scant chance of that, for which I am grateful

The carbon-based heart

But most trying of all has been the way that, weirdly, some texts from the previous phone but one (which served as a back-up for a few days before I steeled myself to get a replacement) have transferred to the new one. These are from the opening weeks of the happiest, post-separation, love affair of my life, and are, as you might imagine, full of tenderness and erotic promise. I am also told that my SIM card is full, and that it would be advisable for me to delete some of them.

Perhaps my phone is telling me that, in terms of mental and emotional health, it might be best to move on? To which I can only say: screw you, phone. Life is hard enough as it is, and if it thinks that removing evidence of a time when I was truly and completely happy is going to make things any better, then all I can say that this is the difference between the silicon- and the carbon-based heart. Although I have to salute the ruthlessness of the former, which demands that when your old heart breaks, you get a new one. For human beings, however, it is not that simple. l

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan

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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