Not quite as easy as 1,2,3

A mind-bending lecture about maths leaves us listeners none the wiser

If you had ever hoped for an accessible programme on the geometric methods adopted to examine the space in multiple dimensions, then The Essay: Symmetry and the Monster (28 April, 11pm, Radio 3) possibly wasn't it. The first in a series of four 15-minute lectures on various mathematicians who have excelled in the study of equations, the programme alleged (ludicrously) that all solutions using the formula of x to the power of anything over 5 and which simultaneously employ a range of continuous tables inevitably deconstructed into groupings that could never be proved relevant. Utter rot!

The first programme was almost entirely devoted to Évariste Galois (after whom the French named their most delicious cigarettes?). A child maths genius who tried to kill himself because he was forced to attend teacher training college, Galois died at the age of 20 in 1832 after being shot in a duel in Paris. Nobody is quite sure what brought the duel on, but, largely in the interests of Symmetry: the Movie, Galois wrote a letter the night before he died in which he outlined in detail his various revolutionary mathematical theories. His last words were, thrillingly: "Don't cry. I need all my courage to die at 20."

For years Galois's propositions were developed and redeveloped by academics, notably the subject of the second programme, a Norwegian born in 1842 called Sophus Lie ("That's -I-E for those of you who might want to look him up") who in the movie must be played by Nick Nolte circa The Deep. A lumbering blond, a "Titan replete with the lust for life", Lie used to leap over horses for fun and once walked to visit a friend, realised he'd left his book at home, and nipped back to fetch it - 36 miles each way. Lie also threatened to kill himself when forced to attend teacher training college (spooky) and worked out his theories using a vibrating string. Hence string theory (?).

The presenter, Professor Mark Ronan, was as sweet as he was incomprehensible. A mathematician himself, he spoke very closely and sincerely into the microphone, using many actorly vocal modulations and different voices, at one point doing a completely whizz impression of Orson Welles complaining about the Swiss. Just occasionally he'd go completely off-piste with little rants about the dating of ancient relics and how much easier everything would be if archaeologists were more organised, and how annoying it is when certain sequences of numbers - 196884 in particular - pop up to haunt the academic like "goblins at a fairground". But he also used lovely heartening phrases such as "let's turn back to" and "to cut a long story short" and "I know this sounds strange, but . . ." He wasn't kidding. The whole series is nuts. For entire minutes Ronan put words together in an order that could do nothing to the mind but bend it, culminating in a call to all intelligent people to examine symmetrical atoms solely by their cross-sections. You have to love him for his faith in us, but really.

The two remaining programmes cover Nazi Germany and Bernd Fischer's "monster" structure of 196,883 dimensions, offering further proof that "mathematics is a subject that continues to surprise its practitioners". No fainting in class, people.

Pick of the week

4 May, 8pm, Radio 3
A recording of the lauded recent Donmar Warehouse production starring Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Robbie Williams and Jon Ronson Journey to the Other Side
6 May, 6.30pm, Radio 4
The pop star and journalist take a paranormal journey together.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, High-street robbery

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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