Act of revenge


Amanda Platell <em>Piatkus, 298pp, £5.99</em>

ISBN 0749931191

The only time I ever asked Amanda Platell about her politics was the only time, I think, that I have seen her blush. I didn't get a straight answer and, when she was subsequently appointed William Hague's spin-doctor (to much mirth among those who claimed to have heard her, not long before, expressing pro-European views), I didn't feel much wiser. But this book provides conclusive evidence.

Platell, I can reveal, is a Tory to the foundations of her lipstick. Her novel betrays a relentlessly bleak and cynical view of human nature. Its characters - nearly all of them journalists or executives on a big newspaper group - lie, cheat, threaten, swear, bribe, double-cross and blackmail their way through life. Like all villains, they can get sentimental over mothers or brothers; and they can be jolly kind if you're worried you've got breast cancer. But though Platell half-heartedly tries to plead a variety of unhappy childhoods in mitigation, this is a book of original sin.

Nobody acts for motives other than greed, fear or lust for power. (There are graphic examples of the other kind of lust but, for the most part, that comes strictly secondary to career advancement.) Even professed sympathy for Romanian orphans turns out to be a career move. Georgina, the heroine - and clearly the character with whom Platell most closely identifies - in the end behaves as badly as everyone else. After reading this book, you feel like taking a long, cold shower. After writing it, you would no doubt think that working with Conservatives was akin to working with angels.

This novel has the usual disclaimer that any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. And indeed it is true that one of the central figures, Douglas Holloway, chief executive of the Tribune Group, is a tall Canadian from Montreal and that Platell, on her journey through News International, the Mirror Group and Express Newspapers (she briefly edited both the Sunday Mirror and the Sunday Express), has never, so far as I know, had much to do with tall Canadians from Montreal. But "a cold man, harsh to the point of brutality, emotionless . . . with no discernible fat or muscle on his wire coat-hanger frame", who orders "a glass of still water, ice, no lemon" in a bar, who runs his newspaper group "with all the efficiency of a concentration camp" and who expounds a crazed vision of multimedia journalism, in which reporters file simultaneously to television, radio, broadsheet and tabloid - well, he sounds uncannily familiar to me.

Platell used to be my boss, being managing director of the Independent papers when I was editor of the Independent on Sunday. She taught me two things. One was how to write a business document ("you need bullet points, Peter, not prose"); the other was that, when driven to despair by the cynicism and brutality of internal newspaper politics, you should open a bottle of wine and laugh. I like to think of her writing this delicious and often hilarious act of revenge, giggling wickedly and knocking back the Sauvignon Blanc. Don't expect anything elegant or profound, but I recommend the result as a perfect antidote to the banal sentimentalities of Christmas.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

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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