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When the wind blows, the tree house will rock

Alice Oswald talks to Milo Webb.

About three miles from here there is a cat, who lives in a beech tree in a hedge. She has her own twostorey treehouse, with a spiral staircase, a wood-burner and an outside shower; and there she sleeps on a sheepskin rug and lets herself in and out through a hole in the floor.

Her creaking apartment used to be the home of a carpenter, who built it after spending time in Thailand:

“I was living in lots of funny little structures out there and I realised you can operate out of anything. When I discovered there was a water supply at the top of the hill, that’s when I had the idea of living here permanently. When the weather was good, it was lovely. People would come up for breakfast and have coffee and toast and eggs. But it was lonely in the winter and always a challenge to get the shopping up the hill. It’s very steep. Sometimes I did it on a little motorbike.”

For three years, he spent his nights balanced like a bird in the branches and his days making things out of wood: “but a living tree,” he says, “has almost nothing in common with a tree on a bench once its bark has come off. It’s only the name that connects them.”

A dead tree, cut into planks and read from one end to the other, is a kind of line graph, with dates down one side and height along the other, as if trees, like mathematicians, had found a way of turning time into form.

But a living tree is a changing, sleeve shape, a wet, thin, brightgreen creature that survives in the thin layer between heartwood and bark. It stands waiting for light, which it catches in the close-woven sieves of its leaves.

From a distance, it looks almost human – parental, stable, nostalgic, theatrical – but close up you get an impression of something hypersensitively twitchy. It has no nervous system but never stops shivering as it responds to split-second changes in the cloud and the wind.

Into this force field of tremblings come various species, all terrified of each other: “Great tits and blue tits mostly. I put a few nesting boxes in the branches and they’d turn up at the weekend when I wasn’t there. Then they’d see me and make their alarm gestures and squeak a lot. Then they’d just settle down, although still a bit wary. The squirrels were always hard to reckon with. I went away one summer and they realised they could come in and help themselves and they got bold and I couldn’t stop them. Once I woke up and went down stairs to confront one and it started running round the walls like a cat. The only way out was past me up through the trap door, so it finally used me as a foothold, dug its claws right into my thigh and jumped.”

Anyone who sleeps outside becomes part of this worldwide network of fear. Perhaps it isn’t fear. Perhaps it’s just a huge extroverted readiness in which trees participate. When the wind blows through a wood, its mass is cut and closed by every leaf, forming a train of jittery vortices in the air.

“Normally you can hear the wind but up there you feel it like a horrible pressure. I didn’t feel safe. To begin with, I relished it. I thought it would be fun if the whole thing started tearing itself apart. But what really freaked me out was when one of the next-door trees fell over. I woke up and there was this horrible crashing noise. It’s quite high where my bed is and after that, whenever it was windy, I couldn’t sleep. The sound of the wind just terrified me.

“So now I mostly use it as a kitchen and I’ve built myself a bed in the hedge under a holly bush. It’s quite a confined space, like a miniature house and that’s the place I sleep best of all. It’s got that slight thrill of being not quite safe. It’s not anchored so it really takes the brunt of the wind. It’s quite exhilarating, the feeling that it might slip down the hill.”

Alice Oswald is an award-winning poet. She writes the nature column for 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