Clash of accents

David Flusfeder delights in the queen of country's folksy charm.

How Dolly Got Rotherham Reading
Radio 4

One of the strengths of radio - its ability to make imaginative worlds through a collision of different types of voices - can also be one of its weaknesses. (Think of The Archers, with its implausibly wide range of accents, or, conversely, the times when everyone sitting around an Ambridge table can sound exactly the same.) An idea for a programme like this one (broadcast on 23 July, 11am) seems, I'm sure, like a gift to the schedulers: Dolly Parton . . . in Rotherham . . . ! Tennessee meets Yorkshire! Celebrity meets Ordinary People! A literacy project initiated by a Country Music Star!

Dolly came over as a bundle of sincerity and charisma and energy, and when she talked about the inspiration of her literacy project she delivered tremendous folksy charm: "The only book we had in our house was the Bible . . . My own daddy wasn't able to read and write."

The Dolly Parton Imagination Library was set up 15 years ago in her home county of Sevier, Tennessee. Each child registered with the library receives a book through the post every month until the age of five. In 1998, there were 2,300 children benefiting from the scheme. Now there are nearly 700,000, in the US, Canada and, since 2008, Rotherham.

The South Yorkshire town reminded the project's founder of her own origins: "Lots of hard-working people, poor people," Parton said, in what could be described as a Tennessee drawl if it weren't so speedy and helium-inflected. The presenter, Sarfraz Mansoor, sometimes seemed dazzled by the unlikely glamour of it all, and a crucial point was left under­explored in the happy collision of accents and dialects - all Parton does is the publicity and branding; it's the local authorities that have to pay the bills. But he did manage to ask the local organiser of the Rotherham Imagination Library if the children couldn't be using an actual library.

“Not everybody is that way inclined," the organiser said, rather tartly. Which was borne out by a satisfied parent. "It's just easier if somebody sends you a book through t'post," she said, and then added the clincher: "It's nice to have someone famous involved in my child's life now."

Antonia Quirke is away

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the far right

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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