I can hear the sirens calling me from W1

I wake early in the summer: the curtain does not fully go across the bedroom window and the traffic in W1, which I get to hear a lot of because I like to sleep with the window open, starts by around 6am. There are also the seagulls, who have wearied of the sea and now wheel and caw miles inland where I thought they had no business. They seem alien and more invasive when in London and I wish I hadn't shown the children The Birds the other week. Not for their sake; for mine. (The film's slow build-up was beginning to oppress the youngest one and then he saw the man in his pyjamas with his eyes pecked out. "Cool," he said, and now lists it as one of his favourites.)

But that's not the main gripe. The worst part about living in W1 is the sirens. I remember, many years ago, when I first went to New York: the police cars really did make that sound! They didn't go "nee-nar nee-nar" like our own tinpot, unarmed police. (New Yorkers also had push-button phones and air-conditioning, the novelty of each of which makes it possible to date me to mid-20th-century vintage.) Nowadays, though, I wonder whether it might not be a good idea to return to a simpler, gentler age when, if you wanted to let the Lavender Hill Mob know you were after them, you blew your whistles and rang a little bell on the roof. As I lie awake one morning at about 6.30, trembling slightly at the thought of another day, already a bit of a nervous wreck, a siren goes off right beneath my window. I am two floors up, but this feels really loud, as if I have a police car in bed with me.

Ambulance attack

It might not have been a police car. I have come to notice the subtle differences between the various sirens of the emergency services, and have been surprised to note that whereas a police car tends to start off ever so slightly more gradually, with a "waa" sound, those new ambulances, which look as though they are carrying bullion rather than people, have a much more aggressive blast, beginning with a consonantal "BWAA", which the other morning made me jump out of my skin and is probably going to kill me one day. I wonder if the ambulance drivers know that on their dashboards they have the power to leave a trail of heart-attack victims in their wake. You know what? I suspect they do and they consider it great sport.

I am beginning to ask myself if this living in the middle of town is all it's cracked up to be. It's all very well having a W1 address on the cheap. But the thing about W1 is that if you go bleating to the Old Bill about them firing up their blues and twos right next to you at sparrow-fart, they will almost certainly tell you, even if you are standing in front of them in your nightdress, clutching your teddy bear and sleepily rubbing your eyes, that this is not a residential district.

I dearly would love to remove myself to the countryside for a bit - a couple of weeks, just long enough to get bored of it - but you can't go to the countryside on your own because people only go to the countryside on their own to kill themselves, and the temptation is strong enough in London as it is. (Not that I need make any effort in that direction, if the strange sensation coming from the right-hand parietal lobe is what I think it is.)

Wake-up call

This is just part of the larger malaise: profound dissatisfaction with my own condition. Living like this is crazy, I say to myself, and things aren't improved when I read an article by Zoe Williams which says, among other things, that "communal living in mature adulthood is incredibly eccentric, somewhere between keeping llamas and being polyamorous". I could qualify this:

I am the only mature adult in the Hovel - I'm certainly the only one who knows how to empty the bin - but then living with two women whose ages don't even add up to mine and who aren't related to me isn't the most normal thing in the world. I have always taken a quiet pleasure in living at right-angles to the rest of society, but I am beginning to think that now is the time to embrace conventionality.

Too late though for that, and I resign myself to turning into a slimmer, more heterosexual but just as unfulfilled Uncle Monty, cursing his native land: we live in a country of rains, where royalty comes in gangs. And do you know how old Richard Griffiths was when Withnail and I was released? Forty. Eight years younger than me. There's a wake-up call for you. l

Next week: Mark Watson

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 18 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, India

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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