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As a child, Barry Humphries heard England through its music

Humphries arrived in England in 1959, just as London was exploding into life.

On Wednesdays (10pm, BBC Radio 2), Barry Humphries has been talking about recordings he listened to while growing up in Melbourne in the 1930s and 1940s. In unstoppably touching scripts, he recalls how, as a child, he thought all influences save the wireless were shadows. “Mumps, measles, whooping cough . . . I hoped these illnesses would never end,” because only when ill was he at liberty to flit from station to station. Dorothy Carless, Mischa Spoliansky, the tenor Joseph Schmidt – Humphries gorged on them between bulletins about the war and other “faraway European catastrophes, from the safety of the silent Australian bush”. Each disc chosen is slightly heightened.

One recording, of an 18-year-old Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (live in concert in 1940) had her hitting the word find (“that’s where you’ll find me”) with the sort of disturbing, unsentimental persistence that any fan who has ever watched the DVD extras of A Star Is Born, made 14 years later, will appreciate. You marvel at her ability to make you continuously fear she’s going to miss notes – it creates such tension – but then never does, hitting them every time and scrupulously the same way even during costume tests, no matter how depressed or shoehorned into yet another too-tight dress she might be. But it was Humphries’s “longing to get back to the Old Country” that has dominated the story so far, and in the second episode (20 January) he arrived in June 1959, just as London was exploding into new life.

Wolverhampton, Huddersfield, Newcastle – the Melbourne curriculum had placed England so firmly at the centre of the universe, the schoolboy Humphries had been able to locate them on maps when he’d struggled to pinpoint his native Adelaide.

England had called to him so deeply in certain songs that when eventually he did drop anchor in the capital, he fully expected a foggy day, but found instead an unwelcome, baking sun (unlike Clive James who, just off the boat three years later, found snow o’er Southampton, and deduced that “the small cloud in front of my face . . . was my breath”). The best Radio 2 series in this, or any month for as long as I can remember. 

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 21 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East's 30 years war

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear