Just after sunset in The Lizard, Cornwall. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Friday Arts Diary | 19 September 2014

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.


Little Big Gig, Kynance Cove, Cornwall
Friday 19 September - Monday 22 September

This is a quirky, family-friendly music and ale festival set on The Lizard - the peak of southern England in Cornwall - overlooking the Atlantic. With music from every genre - jazz, rock, soul - everyone is sure to find something. The location allows a full 3-day festival experience with beautiful sights to compliment. 


64 Squares, New Diorama Theatre, London
Opens 23 September

This upcoming play is adapted from the novel The Royal Game by the 20th century Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. Set in the late 1930s, the world’s greatest chess player is challenged by an odd newcomer. As the game unfolds, move after move, the mysterious stranger reveals his dark past. An exciting tale of identify and madness moving over a board of 64 Squares.


Game Music Connect, Southbank Centre, London
24 September

This one-day conference is for aspiring and professional composers of all backgrounds as well as those interested in learning about the art and craft of creating today’s cutting-edge video game soundtracks. You don’t need to be a composer or industry professional to be a part of Game Music ConnectFans of soundtracks and, indeed, anyone with an interest in music or games is more than welcome to attend any Game Music Connect event.


Encounter’s Festival 20/20, Bristol
Tuesday 16th September - Sunday 21 September

Connecting the past to the future, Encounters Short Film and Animation Festival celebrates short film from its origins as an analogue medium right up to the expanded worlds of live audio-visual, immersive and interactive digital cinema. The 2014 festival continues to revolve around two main venues - the Watershed and Arnolfini - and extends at the weekend to include the Cube Microplex and Harbourside. There will also be opportunities to participate online. The festival aims to push the boundaries of cinematic expectation, explore social and technological film futures, reimagine the analogue/digital fusion and debate the post-medium condition of film.


London Design Festival
Tuesday 16 September - Sunday 21 September

The London Design Festival is an annual event, held to celebrate and promote London as the design capital of the world. Building on London’s existing design activity, the event was launched in 2003 to create an annual event that would promote the city’s creativity, drawing in the country’s greatest thinkers, practitioners, retailers and educators to a deliver an unmissable celebration of design.

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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