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Contemporary Art: Missing in action

Thomas Calvocoressi talks to Patrick Keiller about his elusive protagonist.

Speaking to Patrick Keiller is like spending time with his fictional creation Robinson (Baudelaire meets Defoe with a sexually anarchic dash of Joe Orton). In the artist's film trilogy, the eccentric academic's roamings are narrated to us by "researchers" (Paul Scofield, then Vanessa Redgrave) but the reports of his quests around England are tinged with absurdism. Describing his commission for Tate Britain, Keiller's conversation is full of fascinating tangents, political reference and literary allusion - ranging from the 16th-century Oxfordshire rising to today's Chipping Norton set - and is similarly surrealist: "There's a picture in Robinson in Ruins of an oil pipeline marker, near Didcot Power Station. It's an extremely beautiful pipeline marker and one of the reasons I wanted to film it is because it reminded me very strongly of Gainsborough's painting Mr and Mrs Andrews . . ."

That picture's not in the show because it's up the road in the National Gallery. What Keiller can reveal about his commission is that it is, in essence, a three-dimensional extension of his 2010 film, Robinson in Ruins, a psycho-geographic dissection of the English countryside in the dying days of Labour. It uses art from the Tate's collection (which was his brief) to rework Robinson's journey in the film: "It's styled as the inaugural exhibition of the Robinson Institute, which I first thought about in 1999. It's a place of resort for scholarly and cultural activities - a physical installation, like a piece of sculpture, but one that incorporates many works." The show spans 16th-century to postwar art. "I spent last year looking at the whole of Tate's collection online - I still haven't quite recovered."

So what of the rebellious Robinson, elusive in the last film, having been released from a stretch in jail after loitering around RAF Spadeadam and - we're told by Redgrave - "made his way to the nearest city and looked for somewhere to haunt"; is he still absent in the show? Yes, says Keiller, though he's mentioned. Robinson in Ruins begins by explaining how his lost footage has been discovered in a box in a derelict caravan in the corner of a field and ends with a milestone pointing towards London, or Aberystwyth. "One of the things I hoped people would infer is that perhaps he'd gone back to London," says Keiller, "but also that he might have turned into lichen - or, indeed, the milestone."

At Tate Britain from 27 March until 14 October

Thomas Calvocoressi is Chief Sub (Digital) at the New Statesman and writes about visual arts for the magazine.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Mission impossible

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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