There's nothing more comforting than the sorrowful mysteries of carp or chub

Fisherman's Blues on TalkSport: Keeping it reel.

Fisherman’s Blues
TalkSport
 
“It’s hot. It’s humid,” says Keith Arthur on Fisherman’s Blues (Saturdays and Sundays, 6am). “I’m thinking about the creatures being sacrificed on the altar of insanity that is global warming. Text me. Here’s Alan in Luton.” There’s nothing more comforting at 6am on a Sunday than Arthur recalling the sorrowful mysteries of carp or chub, taking phone calls and letting other voices interweave in a lilting and nicely depressing hum. 
 
Alan in Luton is worried about the lack of available flies made from peacock feathers. “I’ve been struggling for years now,” he says. “My tackle’s inadequate for what I’m doing.” As usual, Arthur is not just sympathetic about inadequate tackle but actively helpful, making suggestions for alternatives (“How about a pheasant’s tail?”). But he knows his callers don’t really want solutions. They just want to say, “I’ve been trying to google it,” and know someone is nodding kindly on the other end of the line, aware that soon this conversation will be over and so will the show and everything will drop back into its usual order. 
 
Then Richard calls. He is panting slightly, possibly a little delirious, burned by our apocalyptic July. “I’m just back from the Crane,” he says, “and it’s alive with fry!” It is important to communicate the extent to which this message has the quality of a broadcast being made from the top floor of a high-rise ten days after the zombie hoards have seized control. “I want the people of Twickenham to know it’s back. It’s alive!” Arthur sits forward, casting off 20 years of melancholy. “The Crane?” It’s a river that was ruined two years ago when Thames Water diverted raw sewage into it to prevent a back-up at Heathrow, killing 10,000 fish. So ruined was it that only in March an environmental charity noticed a “green tinge” in the water and made the sign of the cross.
 
“Take your kids down to the Crane!” yells Rich. “Break a branch off a tree and stick a maggot on a small hook and you will catch fish. Hundreds and thousands of fry! Perch! Barbel! Not pike, because I’ve never actually seen a baby pike, but anyway everything else is everywhere!” Then Richard utters a sentence never before spoken on Fisherman’s Blues – a sentence so romantic it seemed to contain the full scale of adult life, a sentence so inspirational it was the aural equivalent of silvery Perseus swooping down to the aid of all humankind: “Don’t bother with tackle!” 
Don't bother with the tackle. Photograph: Getty Images.

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 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear