Hanif Kureishi got me beaten up. Admittedly it was by my dad. At home, as at the factory where for more than half of his life he had been a semi-skilled machine operator, he preferred to communicate with his hands. Yet as his fists whacked into my face I thought, then as now, how right he was to do what he was doing.
He had come to England in 1965, spurred by the promise of quick wealth and the chance to flex his masculinity. Sikhs have traditionally been among the most enterprising, far-travelling people in India. At the end of the 19th century my father’s grandfather had sailed to Australia, where he worked for twenty years. Now it was his turn to assert his independence, to nudge at the frontiers of possibility. Squeezed into a tiny box-room in the Hounslow house of his elder brother, working 16-hour shifts in the local Nestlé factory, he didn’t quite achieve this. These were frugal, unswinging times. Most of his scanty earnings he handed over to my venal uncle. The rest he sent to the wife and daughter he had left behind in India. Shortly after they joined him here in 1969 they all moved to Gloucester, a small and unglamorous town known these days as Kwik Save Central. Its main claim to fame is Fred West, whose home I jaunted past to and from school for seven years and which has recently been turned into a memorial garden.
My father’s fall from grace was one that many immigrants suffer when they arrive in a new country. His shrunken status compared unfavourably with the respect enjoyed back home by his father, who had served as a police officer for the British in Hong Kong during World War Two. In 1945 my grandfather returned to the small feeder village in the north-west district of Punjab where, tall and stentorian, he owned much land and was deferred to by the local community. Even village hoolies bantering and mischiefing on dusty track roads used to stand to attention as he marched past them on his way to catch the bus to the nearest town, at whose savings bank he deposited the profits he made from his tenants’ wheat and cotton crops. Nobody ever genuflected to my father. Kids in the park used to flick rubber bands at him as he stood guarding me from falling off the swinging tyre. Bored punks made monkey noises as he lugged home sacks of chapatti flour from the local continental foodstore.
In his early twenties my father had had a minor stroke. It twisted his jaw slightly and made it rather unnerving to watch him smile. Not that he did too often. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he lived out another form of paralysis. Each morning he would get up at five o’clock, pack luncheonmeat sandwiches and a flask of sugary tea into his bag before leaving to catch the works minibus. For ten hours he would silently load pallets and heave filthy crank cases. He’d return at five, smothered in oil and grease, and sit blankly in front of the telly or roam the house looking for woodlice to stamp on. Gloucester had a tiny Asian population and there was no gurdwara where he could gossip and politick and complain about women with other Sikh men. He spurned introspection – like most Indian men he preferred to beat his wife or his children than assail himself with self-doubt – yet he had neither friends nor social outlets. He never went to the cinema, to restaurants, on holiday. He became, gradually, inevitably, trapped in his own private universe. As emotionally parsimonious as he had to be financially, he broke his silence only to regale the family with anecdotes he’d overheard from workmates or catchphrases from ITV quiz shows.
The only change to this joyless and dulling regime, one which gave him ballast and security – and a habit shared by all my relatives – came about after the death of his father. Forsaking Family Fortunes, he began belatedly to seek refuge in the homiletic verses of the Ghotka, a slim abridgement of the Sikh holy text, the Guru Granth Sahib. After a lifetime of turbanless beer-drinking my father suddenly got God. He would retreat to his bedroom, where he would place a crumpled handkerchief on his balding head, cross his legs, and recite devotional verses. Night after night, across the landing, and above the slapping noises made by my mother washing the family laundry in the bathroom next door, I would hear him susurrating the same passage over and over again. Then he’d get up, belch, and go and pick a fight with his wife.
He was, in short, a not untypical working-class man. I myself was a typical stroppy teenager who liked to retreat to my own room to write florid homosexual poetry and listen to jangling indie miserabilisms on a tiny transistor – ‘bah bah’ music, he called it. Even so I longed to have something in common with him other than our big noses.
The opportunity to forge a tentative East-West alliance seemed to arise when My Beautiful Laundrette was shown on TV. The film, written by the Anglo-Pakistani Hanif Kureishi and directed by Stephen Frears, told the story of Anglo-Pakistani Omar (played by Gordon Warnecke) who, tired of being patronised and bullied by his family, decides to get ahead by opening a gleaming new laundrette in South London. Having acquired the necessary start-up cash by conning a family friend in a drug deal, he employs as his partner a former schoolfriend, Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis), from whom he had drifted apart after Johnny joined a gang of skinhead racists. While they busy themselves disavowing their cultural obligations and falling in love, all around them is chaos – Omar’s uncle’s mistress is poisoned by his wife, Johnny’s abandoned cronies go ballistic.
Comic and knowing, socially engaged without lapsing into earnestness, the film was a great success on its release in late 1985. It was seen as a welcome riposte to the heritage cinema of Chariots of Fire and A Room with a View. An ironic critique of Thatcherite entrepreneurialism and individualism, it seemed to open up the possibility of a popular and oppositional British film culture. Indeed, its cast of gays, blacks and young characters made it seem a product of a hypothetical GLC film unit. Small wonder that Norman Stone bemoaned ‘the overall feeling of disgust and decay’ conveyed by the film and complained that Kureishi was inciting a ‘sleazy, sick hedonism’. Audiences disagreed. Costing £600,000 to make, the film grossed $15,000,000 and earned the young Kureishi an Oscar nomination for best screenplay.
All this passed me by at the time. Like my parents I never went out. All I had seen were the tantalising trailers: the film looked youthful; it was about people like me. The night it was on TV, I swept the carpet, prepared snacks – some Nice biscuits and a mug of hot milk each – and sat my parents down. On the walls of the sitting room was the obligatory picture of the Sikh holy shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar; the photo’s bright colours were fading, its silver-plated frame was garlanded with tinsel. The Temple told us where we came from and where we might one day return. Next to the photo hung one of the free calendars that all Sikhs used to display in their houses – a garishly colourful drawing of Guru Nanak, bearded and reproachful, above an equally loud banner advertising ‘Dokal and Son Cash and Carry – Wholesale and Distribution’. A happy marriage of culture and commerce.
Everything was perfect except, it turned out, the film itself. It was being screened by Channel 4, a station known then for its obscurity (it was so little-watched that a common joke went: ‘Where do married couples go when they want to elope?’ ‘Channel 4’) and its liberal attitude towards the depiction of sex and nudity. The opening scenes, which featured rundown London squats and tenement blocks, were far too dingy and parochial for people accustomed to the technicolor fantasies of Bollywood. My mother, who had to be up at six the next morning to catch the bus to the sewing factory where she worked, started muttering discontentedly. By the time the camera showed Omar’s uncle in his garage office humping away with his half-undressed, red-corseted mistress I was having doubts. ‘Bakwas!’ shouted my father. (Bollocks!) His milk was untouched. When we got to the scene in which Omar’s cousin, Tania, is so bored at a family get-together that she decides to liven up the evening by flashing her breasts my father flipped. ‘Why are you showing us such filth? Is this what you do at school? Is this the kind of thing you listen to on the radio?’ he yelled before lunging at me. Just as well we never got to the scene where Omar and Johnny start fucking in the laundrette.
My father was right to be appalled. The film celebrated precisely those things – irony, youth, family instability, sexual desire – that he most feared. It taught him, though it would take years for the lesson to sink in fully, that he could not control the future. And control – over their wives, their children, their finances – was what Asian immigrants like him coveted.
Most of them had come over to England in the wake of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962, which restricted entry to those citizens who carried work vouchers issued by the Ministry of Labour. They found that their farming backgrounds were useless. Poor spoken English meant that, unlike Jamaican and Barbadan immigrants, few of them could get work in public transport or in nursing. Unskilled industrial jobs were also scarce, in London especially, following the postwar decline in manufacturing. They were forced to head for drabber, greyer cities like Bradford, Leicester and Birmingham, whose foundries, steel mills and textile factories offered them ready, if menial employment and where rent and travelling expenses were low.
Here in the back-to-back terraced houses in which they lodged, and which they later bought, they ground out the lifestyles that were to characterise Asian life in Britain for the next twenty years. Pleasure was renounced. They worked all the double shifts and overtime slots they could grab. They pennypinched and hoarded. They rarely went out after work: they were too tight, too tired. Their broken English discouraged them from mingling with white communities which increasingly resented their cheerless, yapping ways. The austere work ethic continued long after they had paid for their families in India and Pakistan to join them. They prized money, not culture. Asian mothers would drag their kids around town for hours looking for distressed fruit to buy at reduced prices; they would eradicate all traces of grass in their back gardens in order to plant cash-saving spinach and spring onions; their houses were littered with bargain basement junk and commemorative mug sets they’d bought at car boot sales. Meanwhile shoals of silverfish skated across their bathroom floors; their toothbrushes, unreplaced for years, turned into candyfloss.
Homes were important to Asian parents not just as cost-cutting warehouses but as places for indoctrination. If many of them had only a limited grasp of English, and through suspicion and timidity shied away from the exigencies of social life, then at least they knew that on returning home they were entering a controlled, less complicated zone where they could impress on their children their religious, matrimonial and educational values. They assured them that English women were floozies who liked to lie across car bonnets and get pregnant, that English men were smooth-tongued predators eager to fleece them of their savings. All contact with the outside world was potential contamination. They were instructed never to share anything – sweets, toys or, most important, information – with white people. It wasn’t just yashmaked Muslim girls who were being veiled from society. All Asian kids had to be on their guard. They were in England – and needed to do well there – but, at the same time, they should never think of themselves as British.
This doubleness was obvious in the way that Asian mothers dressed. They would go out draped in beautiful, riotously coloured fabrics, sequinned and beaded, hairbuns scrupulously in place, kohl applied to their eyes, lovely chuplia on their feet, their cracked nails layered with vivid polish. Yet these colours were muffled by the dull grey overcoats they always wore and which made them look dowdy, rather absurd. At first I thought the reason Asian women wore them was because they weren’t used to needing warm coats. But it was more than that. They didn’t bother to co-ordinate colours because they didn’t care about their cheap coats, which they felt belonged to the white world. Indians could wear them without really wearing them. What they were to be judged on was their Indian clothes.
Such a bifocal outlook could easily descend into hypocrisy. Asians liked to trade anecdotes about the grossness and immorality of Westerners. Yet they still sold them pornography and alcohol in cornershops. Their piety was subordinated to the demands of the weekly balance sheet, the cash till’s huge appetite. Never did they see themselves as two-faced money-grabbers. As long as they stayed clean and (largely) sober the white world, they reasoned, could go hang.
Asian parents craved stillness, the faithful replication of ancestral ways of thinking and behaving. Migration had made no difference. The future was to be the past, a few years on. Daughters could look forward to their fingers being chapped by decade after decade of peeling sticky chapattis from the flaming tuvva pans in their poky kitchens; buttery diets later to send them to premature graves would form tyres round their middle-aged waists; they’d not be able to sleep at night because of the back trouble they had developed from stooping over Singer sewing machines both at work and at home. As a reward for these sacrifices they would be shunted into the back room whenever guests came to their home and be expected to emerge sporadically to proffer rounds of milky tea and Indian sweets for fat men in pullovers to tuck into.
Pustular teenage boys, meanwhile, knew it wouldn’t be long before they were married off, occasionally by means of adverts their parents had placed in the matrimonial columns of the ethnic press. ‘Respectable family seeking suitable match for their son: sincere, clean-shaven, fair, chemical engineering MSc, enjoys his fitness routines and believes in high moral values, exporter of garments in Dubai. Girl must be beautiful, family-orientated, vegetarian.’ Soon their mothers would be wearing out the lettering on the rewind button of the remote control as they played back their sons’ wedding videos for the tenth successive time to satisfy the family’s appetite for uxorious images.
Sometimes it seemed as if these were reasonable destinies to live out. Mostly, though, it didn’t. Asians who, like me, grew up in areas of England such as Horsham or Cheam or Gloucester, where brown faces were scarce became increasingly embarrassed by our parents’ accents, by their insistence that we wear outdated polyester clothes and drench our hair in coconut oil before going out. It was easy to forget the love and care that made them do this. We walked fifteen feet ahead of them when out shopping, dreading the moment when they’d call out to us in loud Hindi or Urdu. We rechristened ourselves – Davinder became Dave, Baljit Trevor. We learned Joyce Grenfell comic monologues off by heart, read short stories by Arthur Quiller-Couch – anything we thought would make us truly English. Not only would we laugh at malicious jokes – ‘Why do Pakis never play football? Because every time they get a corner they build a shop on it’ – but, eager to ingratiate ourselves, we’d try to trump them: ‘What’s the difference between a Paki and a bucket of shit? The bucket.’ White kids would laugh – not with us, but at us. Deep down we knew this.
We were, then, in timid turmoil. And Kureishi’s work – particularly the Frears films My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1988) and his first novel The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), but also plays such as Outskirts and Borderline (both 1981) – not only captured these anxieties, but offered for the first time a recognisable portrait of British Asian life. Previously we had made do with sitcoms such as It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and Mind Your Language, in which Asians wore comical headwear and were the butts rather than the tellers of jokes. The BBC broadcast the odd native-language series which, well-intentioned but sombre, featured wailing classical musicians from the Subcontinent or vinegary crones knitting baby clothes in front of the camera. Mainstream news and current affairs coverage was in those days negligible apart from the occasional exposé of the barbarism of arranged marriages or footage of disputes involving Leicester textile workers.
Kureishi’s Asians were more varied. They included pushers, tyrannical ex-foreign ministers, bogus mystics, brutalising landlords, togged-up likely lads, sex-hungry cripples. They duped and slagged off one another. They argued constantly. They also exploited or augmented their ethnicity at will: in My Beautiful Laundrette Omar is sent to a flash new hotel where he is due to pick up an unspecified consignment on behalf of his business associate Salim. The hotel room door is opened to reveal an elderly looking Pakistani whose sprawling white beard makes him resemble a devout mullah. Suddenly, to Omar’s astonishment, the ‘mullah’ peels off his beard which, it turns out, he uses for smuggling sachets of heroin. Equally revelatory is the moment in The Buddha of Suburbia when Karim, the novel’s Bromley-born hero, attends the funeral of a family friend: ‘I did feel, looking at these strange creatures now – the Indians – that in some way these were my people, and that I’d spent my life denying or avoiding that fact. I felt ashamed and incomplete at the same time, as if half of me were missing, and as if I’d been colluding with my enemies.’ Karim decides that ‘if I wanted the additional personality bonus of an Indian past, I would have to create it.’ The key word here is ‘create’. A sense of culture is no longer a curse, no longer a birthmark that you carry with you all your life. Rather, it may be fashioned from nothing: it’s a ‘personality bonus’ – words straight out of an Argos catalogue. And if Indianness is addable, it’s also subtractable. Karim, an aspiring actor, is keen to exploit this insight. Since childhood he’s been a fan of another chameleon and shape-shifter, David Bowie, who was raised, like the author, in Bromley.
Similarly, Kureishi’s next novel The Black Album was named after a bootleg LP by Prince to whom the main character, Shahid, is devoted. Prince plunders freely from various musical genres, from rock or disco or funk or rap. To popular amusement he is forever adopting new personae: a satyr, an androgyne, a symbol – the latter, along with ‘The Artist Formerly Known As Prince’, being one of the numerous names by which he has at times insisted on being known. Polymorphous, perverse, self-transforming, limitless in ego and imagination (although increasingly limited in genius), Prince was an understandable idol for Asians who felt themselves constrained by the order of things.
Allusions such as these highlight Kureishi’s pivotal role in helping second and third-generation Asians think of themselves – and be thought of – as young people. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s white people regarded us as a prematurely middle-aged race with no interest in contemporary fashion. We were thought to take after our fathers, who venerated Magnus Magnusson and Peter Jay, anybody who looked like the besuited officials that a century of colonial education had taught them to defer to. On Friday nights, when many teenagers were out necking bottles of cheap cider or haggling for lovebites in discos, we would be at home hoping the immersion tank wouldn’t run out before we could have our bath. Those crucial years of idling and experimentation, of lying in graveyards striving to be profound, of throwing bricks at passing trains – we missed out on all of that. Small wonder that nobody aspired to be like us. Our demeanour was too courteous, our hairstyles rank, our dialects too foreign for anyone to want or be able to filch our slangy in-terms.
In these respects we were very different from young blacks, whose cultural capital we envied with a passion that contrasted with the caste-driven snobbishness of our parents, who condemned them as ganja-smoking layabouts. What we wouldn’t have given to have sporting heroes such as the Three Degrees: West Bromwich Albion’s Cyrille Regis, Brendan Batson and Laurie Cunningham. Vicariously we clutched our hairbrushes and mimed along in our bedrooms to joyful reggae anthems such as ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ and ‘Young, Gifted and Black’. But we failed to forge musical alliances along the lines of the alliance between rudeboy ska and skinhead stomp at the end of the 1960s, or 1976’s reggae-punk axis. These marriages encompassing fashion, music, sex and shared attitude helped shape today’s multiracial, urban culture which, thanks to such media-hyped epiphenomena as ‘bhangramuffin’ and ‘the future sound of India’, Asians are only belatedly entering. For most of the last thirty years the only ‘Sounds of the Asian Underground’ we’d ever heard were our classmates yelling, ‘The light’s going out! We’re going Paki-bashing!’ as they spotted us entering the subway on the way home after school.
Like his heroes the Beatles and Bowie, Kureishi believed that only London could provide his characters with the stimulation and excitement they craved. His metropolitan landscapes are populated by young people who have abandoned their scabby rooms to cruise through the streets, past myriads of multi-ethnic shops, restaurants and diversions; they’ll smile, laugh, absorb both high and low culture, usually to the accompaniment of pumping dance music which captures the skelter and dense medley of young London. In The Black Album Shahid and Deedee giggle their way through Islington; they kiss, wander past the shops selling Indian-print scarves or punk bootlegs, buy Greil Marcus and Flannery O’Connor books, visit pubs. ‘It was rare to see anyone over forty, as if there were a curfew for older people.’ This, for Shahid, is the life – the clamour and congestion for which an Asian upbringing had left him gasping.
Perhaps the most charming scene Kureishi has ever written comes in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, when Sammy enthuses to his baffled father about the joys of kissing and arguing on the Hammersmith tow-path, strolling through Hyde Park, watching alternative comedians in Earl’s Court abuse the government and attending semiotics seminars at the ICA where Colin MacCabe discusses ‘the relation between a bag of crisps and the self-enclosed unity of the linguistic sign’. This rhapsody emerged at a time when metrocentric lifestyles were not so routinely cannibalised by Lottery-funded film-makers and late-night TV schedulers. It anticipated – and is far superior to – those luridly packaged paperbacks with titles such as Skunked or Shagging Darren which reel off tedious tales of clubbing, copping off and charlie-snorting.
Kureishi cherishes London’s ability to disrupt and upheave. Its chief glory is that it isn’t home. The attack on the cult of home is one of the most compelling aspects of Kureishi’s early work, in which the sophistication of a character’s interior decor is an index of their moral stature. The more sophisticated the furnishings the more vile the character. Tending to the honeysuckle along the back wall or hanging tasteful Indian friezes in a four-storeyed St John’s Wood mansion are the pursuits of reactionaries and manipulative control freaks. The cosmetic is opposed to the ethical. In Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, the only way for Rosie to convey her hatred for her ‘crude, vicious, racist and ignorant’ father – a former Mayor of Bromley – is to announce that he runs a furniture store.
Kureishi’s first three screenplays featured young, enterprising characters being evicted from their squats or the ramshackle dwellings they’d managed to construct under motorway arches. His heroes lived in dilapidated bedsits, in communes full of rotting tarpaulins and leaking pipes, which they shared with radical lawyers, intellectual lesbians and jazz lovers. Blood ties mattered less than collective goodwill and mutual commitment. To some extent these degentrifications were lifestyle choices, the traditional messiness that is the luxury of well-connected dropouts and would-be bohos. Still, by depicting – with sympathy and approval – crumbling households, unorthodox communities and designs for living that were contingent and slung together, Kureishi offered a vision of domesticity hateful to both Thatcherite and traditional Asian notions of propriety.
His second-generation protagonists regarded home as an ‘octopus’, something that squeezed their brains into ‘a tight ball’, and which they feared would swallow them up ‘like a little kebab’. Home had to be fled, quickly. It was their love of speed, the sense that their lives didn’t have to be provincial and piecemeal that aerated Kureishi’s Asian readers. His characters were on the make, ambitious upstarts with nothing to lose except a constraining familial rootedness. We identified with their youth and their desire to do something, anything. They were always on the move, dashing to places they didn’t yet know. That didn’t matter: escape was all. In The Buddha of Suburbia Karim is so keen to escape the plod and atrophy of life back home that he cycles into South London, ‘nipping through traffic, sometimes mounting the pavement, up one-way streets, braking suddenly, accelerating by standing up on the pedals, exhilarated by thought and motion’.
Speed replaced stasis in the heterotopia that Kureishi devised for us. Happiness would no longer be sacrificed at the altar of atavistic religions. It seemed that we could have it all. These themes resonated not only with us but with a white audience once defined by Kureishi as ‘aged between eighteen and forty, mostly middle class and well-educated, film and theatre-literate, liberal progressive or leftish.’
What, above all, made Kureishi a talismanic figure for young Asians was his voice. We had previously been mocked for our deference and timidity. We were too scared to look people in the eye when they spoke to us. We weren’t gobby or dissing. (If this got us little respect from our peers, it did at least help us academically. My own experience is not untypical: there were three Indians in my year at school, and to everyone’s amusement, and our own embarrassment, we were, term after term, the top three performers in our English class.) Kureishi’s language was a revelation. It was neither meek nor subservient. It wasn’t fake posh. Instead, it was playful and casually knowing. Rafi, the avuncular, murderous Third World tyrant in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, says: ‘For me England is hot buttered toast on a fork in front of an open fire. And cunty fingers.’
Kureishi’s public persona wasn’t too dissimilar from that of his lead characters. We cut out articles he’d written in newspapers and read and reread them. He seemed to lack all fear. He didn’t try to be liked. He’d assume the estuary drawl of Mick Jagger and ‘do’ cocksure and bored. Sarky and sussed to the point of being obnoxious, he’d lay into Norman Tebbit, cheer on Poll Tax rioters and celebrate orgiastic youth. Embodied on screen by Tania’s display in My Beautiful Laundrette and Vivia and Rani’s aggressively self-conscious clinching in front of Rafi in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Kureishi’s provocation made us laugh, confident, fighting fit.
A casual flick through Midnight All Day, Kureishi’s latest collection of short stories, gives the impression that it is exactly like the books he wrote in the 1980s. Inventories of metropolitan pleasure pile up: characters are shown dawdling along Kensington High Street shopping for drugs, sex toys and Al Green records. They dream of driving through the metropolis in a taxi – through the West End, down the Mall and past the Minema screening arty Spanish films. The characters, too, are the usual band of artists and Lotharios who pass their time reading hardback fiction, dropping E and having noisy sex. Their obsessions, other than finding more drugs and more sex, still have to do with the need for greater freedom and less domestic responsibility.
A closer look reveals subtle but important changes. Where once Kureishi’s heroes were scrambling towards material and creative prosperity, they now tend to dwell on the right side of affluence. Squatting and communal living have been replaced by luxury pads and invitations to private parties at the ICA. They run film production companies, lecture on human rights in the States, write zeitgeisty novels. They holiday in the Hamptons. They eat humous and florentines. When they feel intellectually undernourished they turn to Nietzsche and Pascal rather than to Kerouac and Eldridge Cleaver. And when they feel a bit rotten, as they often do, they like to compare themselves to figures in paintings by Lucian Freud. Like anorexic film stars and rock musicians writing their not-so-difficult fourth album, it appears that Kureishi’s characters are suffering from a low-key form of Paradise Syndrome.
Relationships have become the main source of angst. Some, like Marcia in ‘Sucking Stones’, who has regular assignations with a Bulgarian former Olympic cyclist in his shabby bedsit, are stuck in company they’re not sure they want to keep any longer. Others, like Rob, a successful working-class actor from South London, are distraught that their partners are about to leave them. Infidelity is rife. Husbands scramble to hold onto wives. Ex-wives hiss at the men who abandoned them. Ex-girlfriends do their best to drag their former partners into bed. Those who are in relationships nurse dark fears about the future.
Sex used to offer joys of Lucullan excess in Kureishi’s work. Wishing to counterblast what he believed to be the state-sponsored repression of the 1980s, the original title for Sammy and Rosie Get Laid was ‘The Fuck’. Sex was joy, intentionally gratuitous. However bizarre and squalid, it was a form of liberation. No longer. In place of unfettered sexual activity there is only bruised pensiveness. Characters see themselves as too old to be bohemian. Though they’re rich and adulated, they worry incessantly about the greying hair behind their ears, their failing eyesight. They feel estranged from themselves as much as from others. Where they used to be dazed and confused by the vertiginous possibilities for self-transformation London offered, now they wander the capital perplexed by what’s happened to their lives and how they have become so congealed. The titles of the short stories – ‘Strangers When We Meet’, ‘That Was Then’, ‘Morning in the Bowl of Night’ – catch the mood of crepuscular resentment.
‘It has come to this,’ says one of the characters self-reproachfully. The reader of Midnight All Day might be tempted to say the same. The book represents – along with Love in a Blue Time (1997) and Intimacy (1998) – the third instalment in the ongoing decline of a once vital writer. The problem resides not so much in the cosseted and unlikable characters, nor in the stagnation of the stories, but in Kureishi’s inability to exploit his form. Short stories require a metonymic imagination, a desire to distil experience. Kureishi, however, thrives on aggregation and accumulation. He is essentially a metropolitan writer and the urban aesthetic, as Jonathan Raban has argued, is noun-orientated, always striving to catalogue the density of new information that the city spews out. Kureishi’s soft-porn rites-of-passage movies and novels involve multiple pile-ups of disparate characters and social worlds. Such constant hustling – upwards! onwards! – is not well suited to the short story.
For a book which dwells on the fraughtness of human relationships and the difficulties of communicating, it seems odd that everyone is able to express their confusion in meticulous sentences. Rob, the narrator of ‘Strangers When We Meet’, accidentally bumps into the husband of the woman he has been seeing for a year. They discuss, he says later, ‘the emptying out; the fear of living; the creation of a wasteland; the denigration of value and meaning’. Idling in a friend’s apartment in Paris to which he has escaped with his pregnant lover – this is in the title story – Ian explains his decline in relation to Thatcherism: ‘Following her, they had moved to the right and ended up in the centre. Their left politics had ended up as social tolerance and lack of deference.’ These lunges towards portentousness are greedy and inelegant. They are so simplistic that one is tempted to assume that Kureishi is being ironic. In ‘Meeting, At Last’, Eric asks his wife’s lover to tell him what he thinks about deception: ‘Your demeanour suggests that it doesn’t matter, either. Are you that cynical? This is important. Look at the century! … I work in television news. I know what goes on. Your cruelty is the same thing. Think of the Jews.’
The attempts to yoke the priapic to the political in the style of Roth or Updike also fail on linguistic grounds. Kureishi is not a prose writer of any distinction. For all their grousing and despair none of his characters is capable of producing the ‘jeroboams of self-absorption’ found in American Pastoral. They explicate rather than illuminate. One announces that ‘When I am depressed I shut everything down, living in a tiny part of myself, in my sexuality or ambition to be an actor. Otherwise, I kill myself off.’ Another declaims: ‘Falling in love was simple; one had only to yield. Digesting another person, however, and sustaining a love, was bloody work, and not a soft job.’ But this bloodiness never crosses over into the words. The idiomatic, suited-and-booted dialogue of his early work has disappeared. Prim, medium-lengthed, stiff-backed, shorn of excess, his prose – as well as his characterisation – lacks warmth.
Like his characters, Kureishi seems to have reached an impasse. All the bodyrocking brio of old has waned. His work is sapped and weary. It hasn’t even the passion or swagger to merit the accusations of misanthropy and misogyny that have recently been hurled at him. In his earlier writing he captured and defined a precise historical juncture. He changed the lives of many young Asians. He also inspired a lot of them to become artists. Now times have changed and everywhere one turns there’s a new magazine, conference or club night dedicated to staging the antics of young Asians in Britain. Ayub Khan Din, who in 1988 played opposite Frances Barber in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, has gone on to write East Is East: it packed out the Royal Court Theatre in 1997 and was made into a slightly inferior film which has, nonetheless, just become the highest-grossing fully British-funded movie. Chart-topping Cornershop had a song called ‘Hanif Kureishi Scene’ on the B-side of their curry-coloured first single; the posters for My Son the Fanatic, Kureishi’s last movie, boasted that the soundtrack album featured the band even though they weren’t heard in the film itself. Meera Syal, one of the sour-faced lesbians in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, is well-known as a writer and as one of the stars of Goodness Gracious Me, the all-Asian television comedy series which sends up – without too much venom or subtlety – Asian, British and Anglo-Asian culture. The work of these artists is saturated with the optimism that is missing from Midnight All Day.
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