Midnight All Day by Hanif Kureishi
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Sukhdev Sandhu's London Calling: How Black and Asian
Writers Imagined a City was published in the summer.
He writes about film for the Daily Telegraph.
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