Has music lost brilliantly flawed friendships like that of The Libertines' Pete Doherty and Carl Barât? Photo: Getty
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Are Pete Doherty and Carl Barât the last of British music’s tempestuous best friendships?

As once estranged Libertines frontmen passionately reunite, they highlight the dearth of stormy musical partnerships in today’s music.

We're a unit now.  And Carl's my brother. There was a time when I'd have died for him, and that turned into a time when I wanted to kill him. But now I'm ready to die for him again.

These are the words of Libertines frontman and the early Noughties’ favourite baby-faced mess Pete Doherty about his bandmate Carl Barât. Speaking to the NME following a reunion gig at Hyde Park on Saturday, Doherty claimed that the tempestuous pair have rediscovered their best friendship.

And what a best friendship it is. Watching the two of them perform their first show since their 2010 Reading and Leeds reunion gigs to a crowd of 60,000 as the sun went down on Hyde Park, the frenzied audience was treated to a plain display of them rediscovering their love.

Merrily jangling out chords and coruscating riffs, glancing over at one another and grinning. Desperately sharing the mic, singing into one another’s mouths. Draping their arms around each other, and at one point tumbling to the floor in a clammy embrace. Like two affectionate drunks at closing time, but wearing guitars and luxurious overcoats, they were clearly reigniting the flame of a once fruitful and captivating musical alliance. They’ve since even hinted at releasing a third album next year (their last album came out ten years ago).

During a friendship splintered by drugs, absenteeism, estrangement and even prison – when Doherty burgled Barât’s flat in a fit of jealous rage – The Libertines faded away into separate bands headed by each of the wounded frontmen.

But while Doherty and Barât rekindling the flame, or at least relighting the roll-up, is a joy for Libertines fans – mainly boys in self-conscious trilbies, and twenty-something women nostalgic for teenage years spent smitten by Doherty’s boyish vulnerability – it also highlights the sad fact that British music is perilously low on tumultuous partnerships.

The inspired moments from bands like Oasis, The Smiths, The Clash and The Beatles – not to mention non-British outfits like Simon and Garfunkel – come from brilliant yet fractured partnerships between two lead songwriters whose love for one another gradually transforms into rage. A bit of hatred and heartache between band members is usually a sign of excellent music – songs forged by an unhealthy level of passion, commitment and feeling. And some creatively angry chord sequences.

Will Doherty and Barât be the last of this strain of tempestuous musical partnership? It’s hard to imagine any of our latest crop of pop groups putting that much love and pain into their efforts. And even if they did, it wouldn’t be the same. It would just be Zayn Malik stepping on Harry Styles’ hair straighteners or something. Although that might result in a few pleasing bars of falsetto.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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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