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Bizet's a ball ache

Paul McKenna talks himself into the zone

On Private Passions (11 October, noon), Radio 3's answer to Desert Island Discs, the hypnotist and fat-loss expert Paul McKenna was defining his line of work. "NLP," he said, solemnly. "That's neuro-linguistic programming," he confirmed. Then he repeated: "NLP" - in a robust monotone, like Julie Walters in the Talking Heads in which she plays a porn actress who likes to take a person's hand and look him in the eye while repeating her name, so he never forgets her. "What is it?" asked the presenter, Michael Berkeley, intensely curious. "It's kinda sorta a hi-tech, 21st-century form of hypnosis," expanded McKenna, frankly a little woolly. "It's definitely a technology . . . and at the cutting edge of . . . personal development."

“Let's have some music," suggested Berkeley, deeply respectful, possibly even awed, as though facing down his interlocutor's extra­sensory powers was taking a real act of will. "Now, I think it was a rather wonderful character who introduced you to this Bizet coming up, no?" "Yes," agreed McKenna, still solemn. "It was Kenny Everett."

Everett, he was at tremendous pains to confirm, was bang into classical music, and, being a heavy-duty chatterer, would expound to him after sticking on a CD, saying all manner of electrifying things - deep, bewitching insights, I'm talking virtual verbal Demerol coursing through the IV right into one's veins. Pause for the whole of the fourth movement of Bizet's Symphony in C. (That's where Private Passions trumps Desert Island Discs, by the way - you get the entire piece of music, not just the first three chords of "Friggin' in the Riggin'" before it's puffily faded out.)

Hours passed. God, Bizet's a ball ache. Purely the kind of stuff plastic surgeons play while X-raying your nose two days before the op. But then McKenna's a proper ball ache. Some other things he said: "Personally, I find all the great geniuses fascinating." "Mozart - he's an interesting character." And "when I see Pat Metheny live he's in what psychologists call the 'flowstate'. Athletes refer to it as being 'in the zone' and musicians sometimes refer to it as being 'in the groove'." Not exactly Steven Pinker in the New York Review of Books, people. Not exactly Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters, coming at you left of centre, selling his groove.

Best switch immediately to the show Singers Unlimited on JAZZ88 FM from Newark, New Jersey, a station where every day feels like the morning after the night you spent with Jeff Bridges in The Fabulous Baker Boys. By which I mean its entire remit is to project that feeling of waking up in bed with someone way out of your league. Rummaging in the duvet for your tights, the melancholy comes crashing down, and you glance about the room thinking, "I know I won't be coming back here again. Fuck."

In short: it's wall-to-wall Etta James and Jackie Ryan, all introduced by a guy called Michael Bourne, who speaks strictly in fragments of sentences, conjuring the image of a person going off on a nod with the cigarette burning down to his fingertips. "The whole . . . about . . . 'Such Sweet Thunder' . . . 2009 music festival over on West 23rd Street . . . The. Ladies. Of. Duke. Ellington." It is currently your reviewer's idea of heaven.

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 19 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Strange Death of Labour England

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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