Fellatio (ma non troppo)

Music 2 - Dermot Clinch on the composer hailed as a saviour of the art

The composer Thomas Ades was awarded the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition at the end of last year. He was named in the Sunday Times Power List as one of the "top 20 creative forces in the arts". And on Christmas Day he had an opera about oral sex on the television.

In fact Ades received a double dose of the Channel 4 treatment over the holiday season. There was also a documentary in which the young composer trudged across wintry landscapes, wore Reservoir Dogs-style shades outside the Snape Maltings concert hall in Tory East Suffolk and was charmingly immodest about his achievements in boosting ticket sales at the Aldeburgh Festival, where he is artistic director. But the main event was Powder Her Face on Christmas Day.

On the strength of this opera Ades now has commissions for Covent Garden and for Glyndebourne. But Powder Her Face remains, for the moment, his only stage work. It is distinctive. Act 1 Sc 4: "Ng ugh agh ah ng agh [coughing] ugh agh ugh agh [clears throat]...". The synopsis explains: "Her Grace gives the Waiter the friendly welcome which has earned her such popularity among the staff." The libretto by Philip Hensher, based on the life of the Duchess of Argyll, is feebly shocking, approximately witty and exhibits, along with its oral fascination, a brutally limited emotional range. The composer, aged 23 when he wrote the music, can be excused for attempting, but ultimately failing, to extend convincingly the piece's sympathies with a counter-current of his own.

Channel 4 concurs, as the title of its documentary, Music for the 21st Century, made clear, in the now routine judgement that Ades is the saviour of our musical life. And surprisingly, even on the small screen the virtues of his opera - its pacing, its emotional depths in spite of everything - were evident. Fishing reels and Swanee whistles fizz at the musical extremities; popguns, electric bells and accordions contribute to some of the most distinctive musical textures of any recent opera. Beginning on a tango, going through motions that Berg, even Stravinsky, might envy, the work is a parodist's showcase. In addition, the composer proves himself a master of the telling reference: accompanying the demise of the Duchess of Argyll by the ghost of a Venetian barcarole, the dance symbolising all those born, in Browning's phrase, "to bloom and drop".

The succes de scandale is always a good way to start. Richard Strauss established his operatic reputation with a work in which he dished up John the Baptist's head on a salver accompanied by disgustingly vivid musical trimmings, but only after Salome had danced naked in front of her stepfather. Ades pulled off a similar coup with his first opera. But it would be a shame if the piece's notoriety, and failings, eclipse his greater achievements.

For these the series of recordings on EMI are our best bet, most recently the grand echoing four movements of Asyla, the symphony in all but name, in which Ades finds a voice for the large musical occasion that is truly, distinctively his own. Is it possible to sound like yourself when sounding like Mahler and Wagner, as Ades does in the work's echoing, haunting slow movement? It is: the mark of this composer's genius is his ability, like Benjamin Britten before him, or W H Auden in another sphere, to soak up and redistribute the history of his art while making it distinctively new.

Peter Grimes sounds as though Verdi and Berg are in the wings for half the time, but is never anything other than Britten. Similarly, what may be Ades's most touching achievement so far, the slow movement of his string quartet Arcadiana (1994), is perhaps a reminiscence of Elgar. It is subtitled "O Albion"; is marked "devotedly"; treads softly but purposefully like Nimrod; and builds a climax as restrained and moving as Elgar's in the Enigma Variations. But over the movement's three minutes we think not only of Elgar, but of Beethoven, and of how that composer's late, almost static melodies were perhaps in Elgar's mind, too. And thus our intellect is engaged as well as our emotions, and the music is proved profoundly good.

This article first appeared in the 17 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to keep us puffing

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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