Change as good as a rest

The best feature of this year's Proms coverage was the interval-filler

The highlight of this year's Proms has been the clutch of super-varied 20-minute programmes made to fill the intervals (continuous, Radio 3). The picture they paint is of a nation fascinatedly sucking boiled sweets in the study.

On 13 August, Andrew Brown mused on the Viking slave raids, indulging his sweetly antiquated way of structuring sentences: "Here in St Andrews I'm sitting among the peaceful ruins of one of the oldest Christian sites in Scotland with the historian Alex Woolf. On the rocks below, by the playful sea, a heron stalks about its awful business. One thousand two hundred years ago, though, would the predators on the sea have been men, and we, on land, their prey?"

He also spoke to a very lively woman whose area of expertise was ancient sex and murder. Nothing geed her up like a three-way ending in a garrotting. "The top of her skull was completely slashed off!" she said of one skeleton and then detailed with what can only be described as pure happiness how certain female slaves in Vikingland were treated like a queen for two days, then gang-raped and dragged to a spot where an old hag called the Angel of Death would supervise a multiple stabbing, encouraging the drummers to play ever louder to cover the slave's prolonged screams so as not to put people off their pottage.

Although there was then talk of the pirate Barbarossa and mention of infidels and Morocco and distant Tunis, essentially Brown wanted to leave us comforted. "It's highly unlikely that we would have ended up in the markets of Damascus or Baghdad if our stroll at St Andrews landed us in the back of a longship," he reasoned.

Another programme considered the clocks first going forward for the summer in 1916. Although it was war that had finally forced the issue, apparently people had been wanting the change for years, in particular the Gresham Angling Society, the National Federation of Hairdressers and the organisers of a fete in Eccles whose pièce de résistance was a race for a stuffed hat.

But the absolute jewel thus far has been the former Night Waves presenter Richard Coles's meditation on the riff in music. "Before I became an opera reviewer for this network and chaplain to the Royal Academy of Music," said the inimitable Coles, dripping reason and experience, "I was a member of the Eighties pop band the Communards." He then went on to speak to a viola player called Jocelyn Pook, who is obsessed with two particular bars of a Bach prelude and resents how notes in a piece of music have the habit of moving on so quickly - you know? "Yeah, yeah," said Coles, with utter sympathy, before playing the Tristan chord from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde mournfully on a piano, while at the same time talking about the subtle moment a riff turns into a tune.

I am crazy about Richard Coles. You all too rarely see him on the box talking in his fluid, unfurling way above his dog collar, like the ideal of a vicar in an E M Forster novel - the kind who would guide you sans notes around the Uffizi and over a brunch of sherry and kedgeree impart actually useful advice on love.

And I'm certain that when we elect him Archbishop of Canterbury, he will make good on every challenge.

Pick of the week

40 Years from Folsom
26 August, 1.30pm, Radio 4
On Johnny Cash’s seminal 1968 prison concert.

The Essay
26 August, 11pm, Radio 3
Continuing to mark the 50 years since Ralph Vaughan Williams’s death – the second of three talks given by the composer.

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 25 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to survive the recession

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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