My life as a sock puppet

I have become the sort of person who sits in Earls Court watching pop bands warm up and eating steak

In my customarily prolonged hypnopompic condition on Saturday morning, I became aware that there was a government "initiative" about passports. It was all about proving we are who we say we are. This is overambitious. Tony Blair wouldn't get a passport, as he plainly isn't who he says he is. And don't get me started on Gordon Brown. Also, after a long, bad Friday, I was feeling sensitive about the matter of identity.

You see, Elixir - a magazine "totally devoted to the huge interest in anti-ageing products" - was being launched. Various bits of the BBC - the Breakfast show, Today on Radio 4 and Radio 5 "Live" - wanted me to discuss this with its editor. My qualification and reason for accepting is that I have just published a book about the pursuit of immortality. Entitled How to Live Forever or Die Trying, it is available at good bookshops and Waterstone's.

The Breakfast TV green room was a broom cupboard with a big flat screen playing the show. The picture was astonishingly bad. Since we were only yards from the studio, this seemed a touch sloppy. In the event, it was a perfectly pleasant discussion, once I had recovered from the anchors' make-up. Then one of the thin young men with clipboards that seem to run the BBC told us Radio 5 couldn't fit us in, so we sat in a much bigger green room - with perfect radio reception and "pastries" - waiting to go on the Today programme. Then back on Breakfast. "Groundhog Day," I muttered to the anchor. The audience changes completely after 9am, so we did the whole thing again. I am now the sort of person who repeats himself on television and knows about life extension.

What's in a name?

I had lunch with the über-blogger Guido Fawkes at the Quality Chop House in Farringdon Road. They didn't have any booking under his real name, Paul Staines, so he tried Fawkes. Still no luck. I now know two people with two names. In the case of the other one, it's a matter of life and death and I live in fear of using the wrong name in the wrong context. It's not so critical with the blogger, but I found I couldn't call him Paul. Guido it is.

One "Peter Hitchens" had been posting comments on Guido's site. This is not the Mail on Sunday columnist and brother of Christopher, but somebody not even called Peter Hitchens. In blogspeak such fakers are called "sock puppets". The real PH had become increasingly irate, as the comments were not quite his style. The scuffle had reached a climax with the real PH visiting the fake PH, who, in a state of panic, phoned Guido to say that "Peter Hitchens has just cycled up my drive". He didn't answer the door. It's all been settled and fake Hitch now seems to have his own blog.

Mrs Appleyard is a bloke

In the evening, my wife had her purse stolen in a crush at Oxford Circus. The guy - she saw him briefly - then successfully convinced some gullible cash machines that he is Mrs Appleyard.

There's a bloke who was or is secretary of the British Buddhist Society called Bryan Appleyard. People sometimes ask me about Buddhism. I reply in depth and at length. Also my favourite character in my favourite TV show, Scrubs, is an Alzheimer's patient who periodically flings himself at people screaming, "Who am I?" At the rehearsals for the Brit Awards on Wednesday, I come close to doing that. I have become the sort of person who sits in Earls Court watching pop bands warm up and eats steak sandwiches. Who am I?

There was a startling lack of boys among the Bournemouth journalism students I lectured on Thursday. The boys that were there seemed uninterested. The girls were fiercely enthusiastic, pouncing on me after the lecture demanding contact numbers, email addresses. Bryan Appleyard, quack Buddhist, is also Grand Old Hack. In fact, on Monday, a very nice interview by the conscientious Ian Burrell - he records everything AND takes it down in shorthand; I just use two recorders - in the Independent had formally anointed me as a grandee. So that's me, out there, a Buddhist grandee surrounded by people who aren't who they say they are.

Identity used to inhere in our bodies. Now it's dispersed, uncertain. "I" is a sock puppet.

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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