I miss Roger Ebert already

The "best known film critic in America" has died, aged 70.

I miss Roger Ebert already. His great achievement as a critic was to make discussing movies personal. He was a great anti-intellectual and a populist - in the best sense of the word - in that that he approached pop culture with a liberal spirit: hoping for the best, eviscerating the worst. Reading Ebert on film provided more than one generation with the confidence to talk about their experiences at the cinema, for work, or for fun. You didn't even need to speak, if you didnt want to. Everyone has thumbs after all.

Ebert began his career as a reporter and features writer, hired by the Chicago Sun-Times in 1966. When he moved on to reviewing the following year, he took the narrative-driven fundamentals of beat reporting with him to the arts desk. He had a prodigious memory, a head full of stories. His memoir, Life Itself, published in 2011, allowed him to focus on the activity that had come to define his life, movie-going, and providing him with a unique way of understanding the life it produced: “I was born inside the movie of my life,” the book begins. “The visuals were before me, the audio surrounded me, the plot unfolded inevitably but not necessarily. I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me.”

His accidental entry into criticism, regular appearances on television (on Sneak Previews and At the Movies), led to disgruntlement from thoroughly-schooled rivals who accused him of reducing the art of reviewer to a series of subjective gestures. But all criticism is, to some degree, subjective – is it not? Orwell testified to the idea that a writer simply likes a book or does not. The challenge comes in attempting to justify that emotion. Ebert did it daily, for over forty years.

Only three days ago Ebert announced on his blog that he was taking a “leave of presence”. In recent years, I have followed his thoughts on illness, religion, and the future of criticism, almost as regularly as his reviews (astonishingly, last year was Ebert’s most prolific – he reviewed 306 movies and wrote weekly blog posts). Despite having undergone a series of debilitating operations since his diagnosis with thyroid cancer in 2002, he planned to oversee a series of projects (including a new website, the annual Ebertfest and an upcoming documentary on his life), while reserving the right to “wax ecstatic about a movie so good it transports me beyond illness.”

For many, Eberts “leave of presence” has become an almost palpable absence of presence: in print, online (despite his best intentions, Ebert became a prolific tweeter) and on television. President Barack Obama paid him tribute: “For a generation of Americans – especially Chicagoans – Roger was the movies. When he didn’t like a film, he was honest; when he did, he was effusive.” 

At the last, he addressed his readers, to whom through writing about film he had become a sweet great-uncle, in the conspicuous glasses and over-sized jacket of a local oracle. His final blog post ended with an expression of gratitude: “So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.”

The American critic in 2006. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at 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