It quickly becomes apparent that nothing is going to materialise. Once the interview request, itself fielded, to be fair, with grace by the notable author, has been redirected towards ‘the lady over there, she deals with press stuff’, only the wildly delusional would have still entertained hope of success. The lady in question, a big-boned, Richmond type, already distracted even while the enquiry is inchoate. Webzine, Hanif, interview, the words themselves of little to no import while she sizes up their delivery system, deciding that he too is instantly forgettable. Yes, yes, we’ll be in touch, she lies, openly disgusted by the delivery system’s failure to produce so much as a business card, or some familiar name at least connecting him to the old print media, the Establishment, to anything really but this bilge about south London, a familiar neck of the woods for Karim Amir, and whatnot. The contact details, scribbled amateurishly on a scrap of paper, melting seamlessly into an air rapidly thickening with disdain. Nothing personal, mind, it’s just what happens nowadays. The ring of steel that automatically goes up around any quasi-public figure, especially one long regarded as part of the national ‘conversation’, whatever dismal concoction that turns out to be.
Just moments before it had all been so promising, the notable author happily regaling the petitioner in front of him with the Stephen Frears’ DVD with a cheery little anecdote about how he’d sign anything, including a woman’s breasts, which apparently he’d already done in France (of course). All smiles at that point, everyone still basking in the warm afterglow of the Foyles’ Q&A. Charming, funny, acerbic, just what one would hope for from one of this country’s most eminent literary voices. And they love Hanif, this assorted gathering. The usual suspects: English liberals, light-skinned Asian women (why are they always light-skinned?) and posh Pakistanis, playing at dissidence from a predictably entitled remove. (You know the form: Changez meets Chor Bazaar with nary a hint of Chaiwallah, the feudalism and trickle-down faux piety for another time). It’s a gathering – of clans, anxieties – that the author himself could hardly have bettered in one of his many shorts, or novels, or journalistic diatribes, satirising both the commentariat, and the commentary. These are the poshos, the pinkos, that Karim couldn’t wait to flee the suburbs for. Low hanging fruit custom built for some fetish play. Race, class, gender, and all the longing that precedes the dance. But the notable author himself seems contented, having made that leap far enough away from this socially twisted present, its minutiae endlessly rehashed across the narcissism of minor media portals. He’s made and lost a fortune (embezzled by his accountant actually), but heading towards that Freedom Pass, he’s still a sprightly presence, impish, a conduit for some much needed mischief. Brexit, shit. Tories, wankers. Mullahs, bearded wankers. Man U, the biggest wankers of the lot. Sadly he doesn’t say that last bit, being a full time Devil, but you’re left with the feeling that he might, given the right sort of provocation.
The trajectory is familiar enough. Periphery to centre and then an extended dispersal of that centre, like John Carpenter’s Fog, enveloping all previous limits. The touchstones too are well worn. Mixed-race kid from Bromley. Bowie’s old alma mater. The sounds, and restlessness, of the suburbs forming a potent admixture with the aspiration and invention of immigrants. Though of course Hanif’s the lovechild, a foot in both camps without any crippling loyalty to the foundations of either. A shot in the arm for a jaded literary scene back in the 80s, a breakout voice steepling away from an echo chamber of racist teachers, uncaring government, brutal tribalisms. Barrow boys in red braces sharing top billing with landed toffs, but immigrant entrepreneurs part of that same shockwave too. He wrote, still writes about all of that, and it struck a chord somewhere with lots of other kids, bored with their lives or perhaps just desperate for it to be more than a predictive loop spanning career, kids, mortgage – precisely the life-sapping co-ordinates, in other words, that he might have thought he’d discarded in the suburbs when planning his escape all those years back. That his readership also comprised some of these kids, real life Karim Amirs, is really testament to just how ‘English’, albeit of the hyphenated variety, they had become in the space of one short generation. Something familiar about that too. The restlessness here, whilst calibrated by the growing pains of ‘English, not English’, of never quite belonging – ‘Nah, where are you REALLY from?’ – is nonetheless about presence and a bucket list of aspirations easily enough absorbed by the ideological hegemony of the time. Conservatism. Arguably much of the opprobrium directed at Kureishi, particularly by British Pakistanis, derives not from some sense of wounded religious pride, but rather from the embarrassment at being labelled social, cultural and ultimately political conservatives at a time when the surface rhetoric was all about militancy. His second novel, The Black Album and a screenplay, My Son The Fanatic, anticipate the later faultlines of homegrown jihadism, communal tension and a resurgence of the Far-Right, culminating as we now see in a perfect storm of race riots, child sex grooming gangs and the Brexit vote which continues to unravel.
It ain’t a pretty picture, much like life itself, and that’s been his other principal muse. The ageing process, and what happens to all those dreams, intimacies, responsibilities, as the years take their toll on relationships founded in headier, more youthful climes. Actually that’s not strictly true. Whilst time is frequently shown in its corrosive aspect, just as often it is the diminishing of physical capacities which broaches a newfound zest for life in Kureishi’s ageing protagonists. Shorn of the narcissism which comes with physical potency, these are not tragic figures. Rather, as in his screenplays for Venus, Le Week-end, The Mother, a final glorious flourishing takes place, sure in the knowledge that limited time demands clarity. No more tiptoeing around convenience, or mawkish sentiment, for these ageing pranksters. The Nothing, his most recent novel, the one he’d been reading from, inducing a few titters from the assorted clans, expands upon many of these themes – loss, potency, resignation – but manages not to be as dispiriting as that sounds. The trademark wit is there, as is an almost savage dissection of an ageing lothario with diminished powers who bears an uncanny resemblance to…ah well, for another time.
Still, the Richmond bouncer, who’s probably ‘relly, relly’ nice off duty, has made no move to continue our fledgling ‘discussion’. In truth it’s only really a discussion if by that is meant the shambolic spectacle of one party whining pathetically while the other temporarily indulges them. But she’s bored now, and the look she imparts suggests this needs to end, no matter that we both know it never really got started. That’s the funny thing with ‘resignation’ though. It can steel your resolve in other ways. An older memory has been jogged, and back home, sure enough, there it is. A cassette (TDK AD90) marked ‘Kureishi’. An interview conducted with the notable author back in 1991 when we both still had barnets and neither of us came armed with a Richmond bouncer. Context, if it even matters. Yours truly, wangling an interview as a means of convincing both self, and the BBC, that right here was a deserving case for inward investment, and a place on an apparently prestigious broadcast journalism scheme. Kureishi, probably a bit bored, the summer after Gazza’s tears, having directed his debut feature, the subsequently critically panned ‘London Kills Me’. Shite film, but of course there’s no mention of that here. Note instead, all the questions, in their blubbering sycophancy, have largely been excised from this account. In their place some sober prompts, all the better to feign professionalism. Sometimes it’s better not to go back, realise you were an even bigger fool than your memories insist. Can say hand on heart though, that he was a good sort even if he did occasionally talk bollocks, and if the film itself was distinctly shite. Then again he is Man U. No accounting for taste. Here’s what he said, in no particular order.
Could you say a little about how you moved from writing to directing (London Kills Me), as well as something about the source material?
When I was finishing my book The Buddha of Suburbia I was hanging around the Portobello road, trying to get some hash. And it was during the summer of the world cup, so I started to hang around, just for fun. (Immersed in) youth culture, which is one of the few things that I love, that make living in this place worthwhile.
How could I say no (to direction). There are people all over this world who’d give their bollocks to direct a feature film. But I also had a safety net. I’m a writer, if it was bollocks I could always go back to writing.
(It’s a question of) ‘Fucking hell who are these kids running around taking drugs? We don’t like them, we don’t want to show them on screen.’ People hate these kids. It’s a form of censorhip, it’s excluding people from the mainstream of the culture. From Costume drama, the BBC. They want to say, ‘no, we don’t see this as culture’. Here (in the mainstream) people take it more personally, they’re showing us our lives, and how our lives are shit. And they don’t like that.
It’s as if there’s whole areas of our lives that are excluded, that are not allowed to be seen.
When I was a kid I wanted to write a film about an Asian family, and the BBC told me, ‘no, that’s not commercial, people don’t want to see that’. Then My Beautiful Launderette came and played across cinemas in several continents, winning prizes and raking in the cash, and it just went to show that no, that’s horseshit. People do want to see this type of material, this kind of story. You can make a story about any old fucking thing and if it’s good, and interesting, people will always want to see it or hear it. So that’s fucking bullshit.
What about funding issues for such a project?
Where would you have to fucking go to get the dosh. America? The only place for young black people to go to get money in this country is pop music.
I write books, I can do other things as well. Everyone leaves. But in pop music, you feel this is it, this is where it’s happening. Pop has been a bigger influence on me, much more than cinema or literature, books, because I grew up in the 60s. Also, the kids in those bands were like us, they were just ordinary kids from the suburbs. It was much easier for me to identify with that. It’s always surprising when you read English writers and you think, have these people never listened to a pop record in their lives? When I first started writing the Buddha, I thought I shouldn’t be writing about listening to The Kinks in my bedroom, but that was my experience. The authorities, they want you to listen to Vaughan Williams, they don’t think anything else counts, as culture, but fuck them, that’s bullshit. They’re wrong.
There’s a strong sense of place in your work. And the film is set in one of Martin Amis’ old (fictive) stomping grounds. Is the Ladbroke Grove setting significant in other ways too?
Martin Amis in all of his work there’s a strong element of contempt, he’s not really like Dickens, there’s a real snootiness underneath, rather like his father. I loved it round there (Ladbroke Grove) and wanted to show it with affection. It doesn’t have to be ‘A room with a view’. I wanted to show the rich colours and shades of everyday English life.
When you’re dealing with real pain, you realise there’s a great gulf (between your experience and what’s being depicted). Then it’s a bit dodgy, perhaps you become a bit of a voyeur. But it isn’t as if you’d be stealing their voice. I’ve got access.
What were you accessing in The Buddha of Suburbia?
The Buddha is not as autobiographical as you’d think. All writing is a mixture of fact and fiction. Ultimately you have to write about what you really know or know to be true. You have to write truthfully. People use your colour as an excuse to exclude you and then as you get older you realise they’re using it and at the same time you’re perfectly capable of stitching together disparate histories. When I was young I was very confused about why these people were calling me a wog, or trying to beat me up. And I wanted to make a conscious effort to make sense of why this was happening. So who did I read? James Baldwin. It either destroys you or it makes you stronger, but it’s a long struggle.
Could you say a little bit about the role of humour in your work?
Humour? I needed humour in my writing. I find the world funny, it’s stupid, and you just laugh at the world. I needed humour for detachment. If you’re going to be a good writer you need a certain amount of distance, otherwise it’d be pure anger, rage.
What was the response like amongst British Asians to the more risqué elements of a film like ‘My Beautiful Launderette’?
Asians? My Beautiful Launderette – ‘fucking hell, what are these guys snogging for?’ There’s been a reinforcement of conservatism, especially post Rushdie. These guys are getting more uptight. It’s a warning to everyone else. If you want to write about, take on militant Islam, you think twice. They don’t want their lives to be examined. They don’t want to be natives being filmed in the jungle, losing their souls. It’s frightening. You’ve got to be careful.
The condition of the late twentieth century is an intermingling of races, nations, cultures, hitherto unknown in human history. Now, it’s an incredible mixture of peoples, cultures, religions. The central problem of the next hundred years is finding a way to have these cultures which exclude one another live together in some place. So the immigrant becomes the everyman figure of these times, out of place, perhaps shunned. But that’s the common experience for a majority. It’s such a major experience of our period.
In myself, through work, I can define myself through my writing. I can write myself into doing whatever I want. I’m free from stereotyping, oddly enough, because I write about it. My contact with the Asian community was through my family, rather than where I live. On the one hand I’m seen as someone who knows about this world and on the other I’m moving further away, into this middle class literary enclave.
Still, we don’t need spokespeople.
And what of the England that you write about?
England is a rougher place than people like to think. There are many Englands, there’s no one England. Go and ask a black person, a Geordie, a football supporter.
There’s so many myths about English culture. It’s not just Vaughan Williams. What are English musical traditions? The Beatles, The Pistols etc. (Or now in the) early 90s: Jah Wobble, Charlie Gillett. It’s impossible to define anything any more. Now everyone knows about everything, people are so sophisticated in their tastes. Some of the dance music of the last few years is incredible. Like that Massive album, it’s incredible. What are the English good at? Breeding racehorses and making pop music.
Then there’s young people. Now they’re marginalised in a bad sense…bad education, no jobs, nowhere to live. But in a good way too, they’re left alone. And in that sense England is incredibly liberal, people leave you alone and it’s a far less conformist country than Fortress Europe.
On the continent you can see the fucking mentality, its like England fifteen years ago. Someone’s got to educate them.
You either try to build multiculturalism, or you end up with streetfighting, violence. You create an underclass, crime, violence, riots. Experience should be telling people this is what happens when you put people in bad housing, exclude them, treat them like shit. My gut feeling is there’s going to be a lot of shit, Nazism, racism, there’s going to be a lot of violence.
How do you envisage your future?
My future? Writing films, being a journalist. It’s a good life being a writer.
Looking back, what’s telling is how much of his endgame forecast has come to pass. The resurgence of the Far Right, racial tensions (which in truth never really went away) and ethno-religious tribalism. As for young people and the housing crisis, well, that’s just got a whole lot worse. The ‘Fortress Europe’ comment is revealing though. Dispiriting, especially in the wake of the Brexit vote, to think that just a few short years back, it was the UK, London in particular, which offered a blueprint for how to do things differently, to not engage in some zero sum game with immigrants as the first casualties. Perhaps it still is, at its core, beyond the hollowed-out, gentrified shell. After all, scorched earth policies tend to be scuppered at the philosophical level first. The physical scaffolding comes later. Kureishi’s in there somewhere, as part of that bulwark, still scuffling (intellectually, at least), still scribing. And if that ain’t a building block…