All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace

Are we being enslaved by technology? Rachel Cooke is not convinced.

How does Adam Curtis get away with it? In the past, this question, falling from my own lips, was implicitly admiring. What I meant was: how, in a world of dross and fearfulness, does he get his brilliant but difficult films screened? Now, though, I'm asking it in a more straightforward way. Whisper it softly, but I'm not sure that his new documentary series - All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (Mondays, 9pm) - adds up to much.

Yes, it's full of arcane information, dizzying rhetorical leaps and serendipitous footage (no one uses a news archive like Curtis does, which is why, when I picture him in my mind's eye, he always looks like a mole). But as a thesis, or even as a provocation - 21st-century connectivity has nothing to do with freedom; we are merely slaves to the corporations that sell us this chimera - it never really gets going. He loses you at every turn, with the somewhat ironic result that, when the thing is over, you resort to one of the machines he so despises - your laptop - to clear up the mess. (Oh, the hours that I have spent googling the followers of Ayn Rand's stupid Collective!)

Does Curtis secretly fear that this is not his best work? It is possible. On Radio 4's Front Row the other evening he sounded tetchy, as you do when you sense that there might be the odd snag in your needlework. Luckily for him, though, his bosses (and some journalists) are now too convinced of his extreme cleverness to risk appearing looking stupid by pointing any such holes out. Advance publicity suggested that Curtis would go after such institutions as Twitter and Facebook - and perhaps he will in the next film (there are three). I certainly hope so. But this time he limited himself to the "New Economy" and the complex mathematical models that were supposed to, but did not, end "boom and bust". For a time, the chief cheerleader for this particular house of cards was Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, who took it on himself to tell Bill Clinton that the social reforms he had promised to implement were impossible to achieve fiscally and that instead he should let the markets transform the US.

Greenspan was an early follower of Ayn Rand, the novelist and founder of objectivism - a peculiar connection that Curtis chose to emphasise over and above any other of his influences. Why? I'm not sure. Rand has a cult following; a certain kind of middle-aged Silicon Valley executive, in thrall to her ideas about individualism, still thinks she's really hot and may even have given his son the middle name "Rand" in her honour.
But most of us think she was shrill, spiteful, batty and possibly the worst novelist of all time. I bet that even Greenspan, a friend till the day she died, had moments when he thought that Atlas Shrugged would never end. Then again, exhumed on screen in black and white, hardly anyone looks so powerful: exotic, shifty, slightly creepy. In this respect, I guess her place in all this is pretty obvious. Curtis is a film-maker, after all.

From here, there were, broadly speaking, two narratives. The first followed the collapse of the New Economy, first in south-east Asia and then in the US. Those pesky mathematical models! The second was Rand-based, and more baffling even than hedge funds. Nathaniel Branden, another of Rand's former followers, described his reluctant affair with her; so did his ex-wife, Barbara, who had apparently given her consent (no one said "no" to Ayn). I wasn't sure what this had to do with anything, save for being evidence of Rand's planet-sized ego and the Brandens' cowardice, but spliced right next to it were various Bill/Monica clips. Curtis seemed to be linking Clinton's wanton submission to the markets and his affair with
Monica Lewinsky.

But why? Is this a moral point? (Extreme individualism dictates that it's every man for himself, in the bedroom as in the boardroom.) Or is it a logistical one? (If Clinton had paid closer attention to the economy, he might not have had time for so much shagging.) Answers - given Curtis's rage against the machines, let's do this the old-fashioned way - on a postcard, please.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools

ahisgett - Flickr
Show Hide image

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