Disability, a New History on Radio 4: We can't get enough

We’ve hear diaries of the disabled from all centuries, discarded flyers for freak shows, letters between aristocrats disfigured by smallpox and grappling with wooden limbs, and an account of Samuel Pepys visiting a lady with a beard (“It was a strange sig

Disability: a New History
Radio 4

Invariably, the shorter the programme on Radio 4, the more creative and appealing it is. Tweet of the Day, my current obsession, recording the facts and sounds behind British birdsong, is less than 90 seconds long and more memorable than anything uttered for the following 180 minutes on the Today programme. The recently broadcast A History of Noise was captivatingly brief and loopy, featuring a French anthropologist crouched in a cave summoning, with groans, painted bisons. And now a run of 15-minute programmes – rather sonorously called Disability: a New History (weekdays, 1.45pm) – comes on with a wit and variety that nobody first tuning in could have anticipated in a million pious years.

We’ve heard diaries of the disabled from all centuries, discarded flyers for freak shows, letters between aristocrats disfigured by smallpox and grappling with wooden limbs, and an account of Samuel Pepys visiting a lady with a beard (“It was a strange sight to me, I confess. And pleased me mightily”). In one episode, an essay by the 18th-century politician William Hay, who was born with curvature of the spine, recalled the self-loathing that accompanied feeling obliged to make a joke of his disability before others got in there first – as though the act of first ridiculing oneself provides firm inoculation against any pain caused by others.

It is, of course, a standard impulse, whatever the era. I was born with only half a left hip, and the subsequent operations and scarring and occasional limp can usually be hidden but when they are not (if I’m tired, or on a beach) I do feel a nagging need to make reference to it and never like myself for doing so. The scars seem to be the least of the problem. I don’t think I mind them much at all.

The presenter Peter White – ever confident and eloquent – openly laughs at some of the more appalling facts discussed. “Are you really telling me that this was supposed to be a medically based thing propounded by scientists?” You can feel his interlocutors (historian, psychologist) immediately loosen, feeling the breeze in the room provided by a presenter at the top of his game. This ten-part series could run all summer and still never be enough.


The presenter Peter White. Photograph: BBC

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, G0

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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