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Isn’t it Byronic?

An afternoon of overpriced burgers among the iPeople is not half bad.

I’ve always found George Gordon (Lord Byron) to be the most proximate of those literary and historical figures whose towering eminence and temporal removal should, by rights, place them at a distance. Nowhere does he seem closer to us than in his letters; take this example, penned on 30 August 1811 to his half-sister and half-lover, Augusta Leigh:

Newstead Abbey
My Dear Augusta, – I don’t know what Scrope Davies meant by telling you I liked children, I abominate the sight of them so much that I have always had the greatest respect for the character of Herod, But, as my house here is large enough for us all, and there is a coaching inn in the vicinity, where, in a backroom – well appointed, with woodblock floors and gaily painted walls – they serve fried potatoes, beef patties clasped in buns, and sweet carbonated sherbert drinks, I daresay we shall be able to abandon your whelps sufficiently so that we might discover the leisure in which to fashion more . . .

Naturally, this passage occurred to me as I stood on the woodblock floor of a gaily painted branch of Byron, a burger chain that is expanding with mushroom alacrity to rival other posh kiddie-nosh purveyors such as GBK (Gourmet Burger Kitchen) and Haché. It seemed to me self-evident that Byron – which now has 31 outlets, the bulk of them in London’s bourgeois ghettos, but with outliers in Cambridge, Oxford and the Bluewater shopping mall – must have been named after the scandalous peer, but when I taxed the waiter, he denied it and gave me some cockamamie tale about the name being derived from a Middle English expression meaning “from the cow shed”. As soon as I reached home I reached for the OEDand discovered neither an adjectival form of “byre”, nor anything in between.

True, Byron the burger joint bears little formal resemblance to either the author of Childe Harold and She Walks in Beauty, or to those lapidary works themselves, being pretty much a standard example of the strippeddown functionalism school of contemporary restaurant design: the aforementioned woodblock floors, some padded vinyl, paintstriped walls in cassata colours, metal-legged stacking chairs, exposed ventilation ducts, and so on and so forth . . . You could dish up anything in these surroundings to early-21stcentury iPeople and they’d fork it down. I’ve seen long lines snaking from the doors of Byrons all over town, and boxed my own ears with frustration at the evidence of such mass credulousness.

Because there’s nothing that great about Byron’s burgers – they’ve simply hit on another way of flogging the same old dead cow. This gastro-fast food mash-up isn’t new: burger joints of the tony type – such as the Great American Disaster and the original Hard Rock Café – sprung up alongside the ubiquitous Wimpy Bars in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

No, what has been well done will be well done again, and there’s nothing new under the bun. But while I may have come to Byron to scoff byronically rather than scoff, um, Byronically (if you’ll forgive this neologism), I ended up being rather charmed. Why? Well, because of the human rather than the bovine element. I’m sure that when the herd are in, the staff are just as fraught as any minimumwage- and-tips McJobbers, but we – the whelps and I – were dining in the late afternoon, and the gaff was fairly empty. So, maximum attentiveness from the cheery young servitors: they were highly-responsive to my tedious intolerances, ensuring that the garlictainted dressing for my lamb skinny burger came in a separate dish, and when Da Boyz’ burgers were wrongly caparisoned in bacon, they swiftly exchanged them.

It made all the difference. Despite the implicit tension of being served takeaway food at sit-down prices, I began to relax into our booth and wasn’t even riled when, as the witching hour approached, they applied the dimmer switch so that the ambience “ . . . mellow’d to that tender light/Which heaven to gaudy day denies”. I’ve no idea why restaurants feel it necessary to do this. I suppose for the clear-eyed and youthful it induces a cosy intimacy, but for those of us already grimly anticipating the ultimate dying of the light it seems like an unnecessary trailer. I’d probably feel differently if I was “a mind at peace with all below”, but at least I’m a generous tipper.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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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