Core values

Britain is rich in apples, but we eat only the boring ones.

In theory, the new apple season should present the conscientiously egalitarian shopper with the ideal opportunity to show their disdain for conventional hierarchies. Going for Granny Smith over Grand Duke Constantine, or choosing the common Cox's Orange Pippin rather than the Countess of Wessex would be a blessedly pleasurable way to voice one's support for a classless society.

Sadly, however, most of us never get the chance; although there are thought to be more than 7,500 varieties of apple in cultivation around the world, you will be hard-pressed to find more than five to choose from, even in the largest of supermarkets.

In fact, wherever you shop, the same old names crop up over and over again: Braeburn, Gala, Golden Delicious (if ever an apple could be sued under the Trade Descriptions Act . . .). If you don't like big and bland, or at least, boring, then you're in trouble. The irony is that no other fruit boasts such glorious diversity: as The Oxford Companion to Food puts it, apple seeds grow into trees resembling their parents "no more than human daughters resemble their mothers", so, without techniques such as grafting, every tree would constitute its own variety. It is this vaguely miraculous process that created the names we know and love today - but also many more that most of us will never be lucky enough to taste.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs's National Fruit Collection at Brogdale in Kent boasts over 2,000 varieties of native apple, many of which, once local delicacies, are now found nowhere else. The unattractively named, but apparently delicious Irish Greasy Pippin (the waxy coating offering protection from vicious Atlantic winds) and the downright ugly Cat's Head cooking apple are two such casualties of the postwar march of the supermarkets. Not only do many traditional varieties lack the yields and robustness required to endure a centralised distribution system, but can you really see Tesco building an ad campaign around the Brown Snout or even the thrilling-sounding Climax?

According to the Royal Horticultural Society, Britain has lost more than half of its apple orchards over the past 25 years, grubbed up for the most part because they were not commercially viable in a world where an apple is prized for its good looks rather than its performance in a pie. The problem is, apart from this sad lack of variety, many of these shiny models of pippy perfection are not ideally suited to the British climate or soil: Granny Smith, for instance, first appeared in New South Wales. Although growers have had success with some foreign varieties, the Kiwi Braeburn being a notable example, it is a shame that there is little incentive for them to devote equal time to native species.

After all, the British taste in fruit is as distinct and eccentric as our weather. We are the only people to cultivate apples specifically for cooking, or to look past the toad-like skin of the russet family to the aromatic flesh beneath. (Our curious passion for such unprepossessing fruit is often attributed to the Victorian custom of serving apples with port - the nutty character of russet apples combines exceptionally well with tawnies.)

There might be light at the end of the tunnel, however: the supermarkets have picked up on our rumblings of discontent. Marks & Spencer, once notorious for its shiny, air-freighted produce, has been working with Brogdale to bring a few less familiar names to shelves this autumn, and Sainsbury's tells me that it will be stocking more than 60 varieties of British-grown apples over the course of the season. Granted, these won't be the ugly ducklings - it might be a while before we see the Bloody Ploughman on shelves next to the Braeburns - but it's a start. And every revolution has to begin with the smallest of seeds . . .

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 03 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Which Tories is it ok to love?

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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