The Albertopolis of the South on BBC Radio 3: Glints of royal passion

Prince Albert is presented as a man convinced that the key to cultural progress lay in material inventiveness in a wistful documentary on London's Crystal Palace.

A wistful programme on Penge’s glass Versailles, the Crystal Palace (25 August, 8.45pm), pushed its patron, Prince Albert, as a man with a wholly consuming passion for cultural progress through material inventiveness. Tuttingly described by John Ruskin as “a cucumber frame between two chimneys”, the vast building once housed dog shows, food festivals, exhibitions from Japan and Switzerland and hundreds of British manufacturers displaying their products.
 
The prince consort was adoringly talked about here as a man with “a thirst for information, and faith in commerce and industry and technical energy and tenacity”, who brought “German high culture into our British midst”. He embraced the Crystal Palace project from its 1851 Hyde Park origins as whoopingly as a teenage boy given a bag of weed and a set of car keys.
 
The first thing the 20-year-old Albert did when he got to Buckingham Palace in 1839 was to replace the honking palace brass band with a string ensemble, determined to establish that while he was around, “art mattered”. But famously he didn’t stop at this kind of thing. In the 2009 film The Young Victoria, Albert is shown frowningly poring over his plans for social housing, spreading papers across the gilded desks and tables as though Buckers were the admin building at a small Midwestern college. Emily Blunt’s Victoria is filmed staring at him during these moments evidently with more in mind than her husband’s moral goodness and faith in the improving power of culture only.
 
The most telling bit of the current coronation exhibition at Buckingham Palace is when – dozy-dead on Duchy Originals at the garden café – you’re ushered out down a long-defunct corridor littered with vases, plant pots and bits and bobs that didn’t make it into the state rooms, or even the rooms off the state rooms, and you notice several slightly pervy marble statues of some Greek god sucking the face off a dryad and they all turn out to be gifts from Victoria to Albert.
 
You spare a thought for the poor man, unwrapping yet another Christmas present, worrying about whether it was going to be something suitable for the children to look at, and then catching Victoria’s eye and understanding that it was going to be another very long night not-in-Penge.
Prince Albert was behind the Crystal Park project from its beginnings in Hyde Park. 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 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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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