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Don’t say goodbye to wild wasteland Berlin

The city remains, for the moment, admirably wild.

In one of his finest poems, (“The Buried Life”, 1852), Matthew Arnold lamented that our experience of this world is divided between an outer, societally delimited and essentially inauthentic existence and a “buried life” that we seem unable to follow on its “true, original course”.

For the great “democrat by conviction, rather than by temperament”, (in the words of his friend Florence Earle Coates) melancholy arises from the “airs, and floating echoes” that come from “the soul’s subterranean depth . . . as from an infinitely distant land” and the poem expresses a longing to “inquire/ Into the mystery of this heart which beats/So wild, so deep in us”. As the poem closes, Arnold characteristically decides that we are able to articulate this buried life, at least to some extent, “Only – and this is rare –/When a beloved hand is laid in ours” – and while this is touching and very much of its time, it is the one element of his argument that I would want, if not to dispute, then at least to expand.

After the massive destruction of the Second World War, Berlin became home to a huge influx of crested larks (Galerida cristata). This bird, adapted for life in desert and steppe country, is also very much at home on building sites, waste ground and, for a time at least, prospered in the ruins of Berlin, where (according to the exhibition notes of the Biopolis display currently on show at the Museum für Naturkunde) many of those who lived through the aftermath of the war “described the appearance of these inconspicuous birds in the midst of brutal destruction as very soothing for long-suffering souls”. This suggests it is not only the rare moment with a loved one that can overcome our sense of being divided in and against ourselves; it may be that a connection that allows us to heed the “unregarded river” of life that we share with all organisms may become a starting point for recovering what Arnold calls “our hidden self” – and with it,  moral and political integrity.

That unregarded river – and the wildness it entails – is always under threat but, as a city dotted with building sites, “waste” ground and schrebergärten (small plots of land somewhere between summer cottage and allotment, often described as sites of “freedom and space”), Berlin remains, for the moment, admirably wild.

For the moment is the operative expression, because those who recognise not just the restorative power but also the essential need for wildness and diversity in every area of our lives are eternally opposed by those who think of anything natural, (including people) as “resources”. That this resource-thinking is the great tragedy of our age should be obvious to everyone; certainly it should be anathema to those who consider themselves “green” – and any “green” party that lends support to resource-thinking is just as divided against itself as Arnold’s unhappy protagonist, no matter how politically appealing the compromise may seem.

In the introduction to Culture and Anarchy, Arnold says “culture, which is the study of perfection, leads us . . . to conceive of true human perfection as a harmonious perfection, developing all sides of our humanity; and as a general perfection, developing all parts of our society. For if one member suffers, the other members must suffer with it; and the fewer there are that follow the true way of salvation the harder that way is to find.” If you want to “save the world”, you have to save all of it – and for that we need dramatic change, complete integrity and true wildness, not business as usual with pretty green ribbons on.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The New Patriotism

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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