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From high-brow to hi-tech: Shakespeare on the iPad

The launch of a new literature app sees the world's most famous playwright re-invented for the digital age.

Once again, the luddites are being left behind.

If you are the sort of person who associates the term ‘browser’ with a bookshelf rather an internet page, you may be less than delighted to learn of the launch of yet another literary app.

Cambridge University Press have launched two new iPad apps designed to bring Shakespeare’s plays into a new lease of interactive life. Romeo and Juliet and MacBeth have just been released in their new digital form, their prose augmented with photos, audio readings, timeless, diagrams and articles by experts.

The appearance of this product should come as no surprise in a market that in recent years has demonstrated not so much a gap as a gaping hole for app-entrepreneurs. The new Shakespeare app is following hot on the heels of previous literary successes. TS Eliot’s The Waste Land was released as an app last year to great critical and commercial success. A few months ago, Shakespeare's 154 sonnets were also transformed into tablet-friendly forms in an app which saw famous actors giving video readings of the poems.  Demand for such products is so great that earlier this year Apple announced literature apps were the second most popular category in their app store, toped only by gaming.

On the whole, book-lovers have reacted to literary apps in the same way they did the fearful threat of the Kindle. First came condemnation on the defence that you cannot replace “the feel” of a book, later a reluctant acceptance that the times are a-changing.

One target audience guaranteed to be happy with this product, however, are teachers. New technology is an invaluable asset to those tasked with retaining famously fickle adolescent attention spans. Prior to its realease, Cambridge University Press tested their app at a local high school, where it proved a resounding success at re-igniting the interests of teenagers in sixteenth century monologues.

Will these apps become commonplace on school curriculums? Considering that even those possessing doctoral degrees in literature benefit from some extra context when reading Shakespeare, there is clearly a broad need for products like this. In an age where our reading habits are undoubtedly changing, it seems a user-friendly, well-designed app may be exactly what's needed to re-invent historical fiction for a future audience.

Kamila Kocialkowska is a freelance journalist based in London.



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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