Too much, man

Rock - Richard Cook on three survivors and one star from the glory days of pop protest

Protest music was annexed by rap in the 1980s, and the old American folkies who'd previously looked after it were made to seem like hayseeds in comparison. The long tradition of pop protest that the counter-culture of the sixties spread like a genteel virus has its noble streak, but American rock took it on board all too smoothly. By the time we got to Woodstock, it was already just another fad. For every Phil Ochs or Country Joe McDonald, there was a fraudulent careerist whose anti-whatever-it-was was just another way into a mediocre midstream, where "protest" was manifest as the vaguest kind of nod to the zeitgeist.

Survivors of the period can't forget those glory days. Consider the four old rascals named Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Their new record, Looking Forward (Reprise), is the collaboration that they manage between them roughly once every decade. The title suggests the hankering for a fresh start that seems to be the standard mise en scene for everything emerging at this point, and references in several songs to passing wisdom on to a new generation fit the mood. Except all these relics can do is reminisce about when they were giants. The music is the same old rock, goosed a little here and there by the odd hint of a multinational groove, and as each character steps forward for his turn in the limelight it's like watching music hall turns run through their most prehistoric routines.

David Crosby, once the little blond angel of the Byrds, has roused himself sufficiently to contribute one-and-a-half songs, the first of which , "Stand and Be Counted" - where he insists that we all thank the boy who stood in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square - is the most sanctimonious poppycock I've heard all year. Graham Nash's songs have never passed muster, but his two are flimsy even by his standards. One says "life is hard enough, I know" and the other goes "life's too hard to bear". Pretty enlightening from someone who's had little to do other than be a rich and privileged hippie for the past 30 years. The spit and venom comes, as always, from grouchy old Stephen Stills, whose "Seen Enough" and "No Tears Left" reprise his ineffective flailing at more or less anyone with a Powerbook and a website (the sleeve lists the existence of a website called I have a sort of grudging admiration for Stills's pointless chutzpah, but his voice is in tatters and so is the songwriting.

The asinine flannel that this record peddles is a wretched and unbelievable shout into the void. "Protest" is reduced to a footling ramble through cliches that would have been unpromisingly thin even when CSNY first started strumming. But there is, of course, Neil Young to save their bacon. Young never keeps the best of himself for these projects, but even an off-form Young can trounce the efforts of the other three. He brought four songs to the date, and though two of them are nothing much, "Looking Forward" itself is one of his cracked little folk-fables and "Slowpoke" is Young at close to his offhand, by-accident best. There's no protest in Young's lyrics either, just a reflective window on a carefully observed world of his own.

Where Young scores - and the others miss by a country mile - is in his modesty. CS&N all perform and sing with the effortful manner of men who believe they're indispensable messengers of great thoughts. Y simply plays in the old folkie skin he always forgot to shed. He has another thing, too: all the best tunes.

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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