Show Hide image

Man of artful mystery

Rachel Cooke is cowed by the imperial glamour of Rory Stewart MP.

Afghanistan: the Great Game: BBC2

It was Kipling who first pushed the phrase “the Great Game” into the national consciousness in his 1901 novel, Kim – and this being one of Rory Stewart’s favourite books, he made it the title of his two-part documentary about Afghanis­tan (28 and 30 May, 9pm). The Great Game was how the British described the strategic conflict between their empire and the Russians’ in 19th-century central Asia; the Russians, more poetically, called it the Tournament of Shadows.

It is a timely bit of film-making, but first we must ponder Stewart’s very own Great Game. I am certain he’s playing one; I have never come across a man with more of a sense of himself than the Conservative member for Penrith. I just can’t quite pinpoint his goal. The romantic, T E Lawrence stuff – Stewart, once deputy governor of two provinces of Iraq, has never denied rumours that he was also a British spy – doesn’t sit with the dull pragmatism required to become foreign secretary. Who needs Dari in Whitehall?

On the other hand, you can’t help but notice the way he has become an expert on Afghan­istan, having walked across it on a whim as a younger man (later, he ran a cultural NGO in Kabul at the instigation of Prince Charles, whose sons he used to teach). The association works for him not because Afghanistan is a big story politically – the electorate cares about it very little – but because it is a country for which the word “epic” might have been invented. The battles! The bloodshed! The barren hills! If in politics a picture is worth a thousand words, the sight of Stewart standing on an ancient citadel describing the courage of some Victorian soldier is the visual equivalent of the entire works of Shakespeare. His views on Afghanistan are hardly original: he believes our invasion was an ignorant mistake. But with a mountain backdrop, and to the sound of the muezzin dancing on the breeze, good sense can start to sound remarkably like destiny, don’t you think?

Anyway, to the films. The second was dull, a rehash of the story of how the US funded the mujahedin in order to see off the Russians, though I enjoyed Stewart’s encounter in it with Joanne Herring, the Texan socialite. In the 1980s, it was Herring who encouraged the Democratic congressman Charlie Wilson, her then boyfriend, to support the Afghans by covertly supplying them with weapons. Stewart is an indiscriminate flirt; with men and women alike, he favours the foal move so beloved of Princess Diana – chin down, eyes up – and here he worked it to dizzying effect on a woman who in old age bears a strong resemblance to Zsa Zsa Gabor. I could only have been more delighted if he had begun quoting The Waste Land at her; he memorised the poem at 14.

But the first film, which concerned itself with Britain’s adventures in Afghanistan, was fascinating. Stewart clearly identifies with Alexander Burnes, the British spy whose 1834 account of his journey to Bokhara made him famous. When he described a letter Burnes wrote to his mother, in which he said he would get by using only his languages, his charm and his politeness, Stewart might have been describing his own modus operandi. His accounts of the battles of the first and second Anglo-Afghan wars were faultlessly exciting, replete with pathos and horror. Later, I was entranced by the tale of Amanullah Khan, the modernising Afghan king who in 1927 embarked on a European tour, during which he bought a fleet of Rolls-Royce cars. By the time he returned to Kabul, the rumour was that he’d purchased a machine that could turn corpses into soap.

Nevertheless, however many countries he visited and however many interviews he conducted (Stewart doesn’t interview people; he “sits with” them, village-elder-style), the star of these films was him. Anyone – even I – can point out that Afghanistan is unconquerable, but not everyone can look this good on camera: part sage, part action man, part poet. Even the dust on the hems of his jeans had come straight from central casting. When he stood on a Kabul rooftop and surveyed the city below, you felt – exude, Rory, exude! – all of his pity, his wisdom, his immense understanding. The moment was fleeting, but while it lasted, deference rose in me, unfamiliar and mildly alarming. l

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The royal makeover

ahisgett - Flickr
Show Hide image

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