Ringside seat

A Ringside Seat: the autobiography

Michael Brunson <em>Hodder & Stoughton, 370pp, £18.99</em>


By the time Michael Brunson retired as ITN's political editor, he was better known than most politicians. For 14 years, he had recorded every daily twist and turn of the political dramas unfolding at Westminster: the fall of Margaret Thatcher; the rise and fall of John Major; the end of Neil Kinnock; the rise of Tony Blair. The politicians came and went, but Brunson was always there.

Why did we watch him in such large numbers until he moved into television wilderness with the scrapping of News at Ten? The answer highlights his strengths as a television journalist, but explains, also, why his book is nowhere near as gripping as those breathless reports. We switched on to find out what had happened and what would happen next. The combined draw of the dramatic events themselves and Brunson's ability to convey the excitement in short bursts became a required daily fix. Sometimes his reports were more exciting than the events he was describing, but mostly his exuberant style chimed with the high politics of our times. We needed to know if Thatcher was still secure, if Major would survive the night, if Blair and Brown had really fallen out that day. He was always well informed, speaking privately to the people who mattered.

Uniquely, he provided a sense of how the drama would unfold the following day. One of his favourite tricks was to tell Trevor Macdonald what the agenda-setting Sun would make of it all on its front pages the next morning. "William Hague won't like what he reads tomorrow, Trevor. The Sun is portraying him as a dead parrot." Another device was to produce, as if from nowhere, a secret document and brandish it in front of his camera. "Trevor, I have here the select committee's report which ministers will not see until tomorrow . . ." I have noticed that one or two correspondents have tried to copy his demonstrative style, and ended up looking rather silly. Only the original artist can pull these things off.

As a writer, Brunson is unlikely to have as many imitators. He manages to make the events, in retrospect, seem duller than they really were. On the page, they really do become one damned event after another. There is no attempt to make any sense of it all. Why did the Tory party fall out over Europe? Why did Major not make more of his unlikely election win in 1992? How different in substance is new Labour to the party led by John Smith? Brunson does not ask the questions, let alone attempt to answer them. Similarly, the personalities that he got to know so well function in a political vacuum. Major is moody, Sir Geoffrey Howe convivial and Nigel Lawson aloof. They could be characters in any soap opera, not specifically the Westminster variety.

On the rare occasions when Brunson makes a judgement, though, he hits the mark. His chapter on Labour's spin-doctors should be read by all those clever types who have become obsessed by both "spin" and "Tony's cronies", the two great red herrings when attempting to understand this government. Brunson points out that he has come across similar "spinners" in the US and in previous British governments.

On the whole, he adopts a modest tone throughout the book, making reference to his competitors' exclusives and not mentioning many of his own; but he rightly makes the point that people like himself are capable of separating the substance from the spin. He also suggests, correctly, that every prime minister has an entourage and exploits his or her powers of patronage.

John Cole, the former BBC political editor, who was a print journalist as well as a broadcaster, wrote a much more substantial book when he retired. He was at least as interested in explaining why politicians behaved in the way they did as narrating each event as it happened. This book can be summarised in one of those short soundbites that Brunson so skilfully wove into his compelling three-minute television narratives: "A unique TV journalist, who reported vividly on a lot of fast-moving stories. Michael Brunson, News at Ten (deceased), Westminster. Er, that's it."

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why I am voting for Ken Livingstone

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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