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Snack addicts

“I am getting divorced and all I want to eat is peanut butter.”

The Essay
BBC Radio 3

A series of The Essay – Radio 3’s routinely excellent and varied late-night monologues – praised American food (19-23 November, 10.45pm). Joyce Maynard spoke about the Wampanoags offering popcorn at the first Thanksgiving. Her reason for loving the snack so much – “It’s healthy and low in calories and delicious” – sounded as good as any but when she started dissing bags full of sugary matter “popped at some unknown location”, she sounded a little high and mighty. “Movie food”, she called it, thinly, preferring salt on hers when watching a DVD while her daughter sprinkles on brewer’s yeast. Remind me to go watch Paranormal Activity 4 elsewhere.

Popcorn, she pointed out correctly, is best for election nights and break-ups. Times, I took her as meaning, when, like Prospero, “Every third thought shall be my grave.” (But it must always, surely, be sweet and contain, as you get to the bottom of the bag, such an increasing number of those stone-hard kernels that refuse like a bad mussel to put out that you begin to feel short-changed.)

Another episode opened with the line: “I am getting divorced and all I want to eat is peanut butter.” Alice Sebold recalled a 1960s childhood spent eating Skippy from the jar. “Three thousand two hundred calories and 238 grammes of fat,” she sighed. “That’s a lot of cheek and jowl.” Divorce, she explained, now represents to her not just the tragic dissolution of love but the end of her happy relationship with peanut butter: a post-separation diet of nothing but Peter Pan spread on to rice crackers followed by a trickle of heavy cream (“divorce shopping at its best”) completely did her in; the shame got too much.

Which reminded me of a recent trip to the Selfridges food hall with my 12-year-old godson, Max, who usually lives in New Jersey. Fresh out of a screening of Skyfall in which Max was gobsmacked by the dark and savoury simplicity of Daniel Craig’s waxed jacket in the scenes set in Scotland, he was suddenly in no mood to embrace his Garden State heritage and hurried me – red-faced – along the “American aisle” piled high with Lucky Charms, Cap’n Crunch, Marshmallow Fluff, Aunt Jemima pancake mix and Duncan Hines frosting, in search of something he felt he could feasibly call cool. In front of the Ass Kickin’ Original Hot Sauce, he nodded; “Thank God.”

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 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

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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