The first time I ever encountered Hanif Kureishi I was piling into a Beetle on a grey day in Bristol. His twin sons, great friends at university, had invited me out to lunch. They did that usual British domestic routine of insisting ‘the guest should sit in the front’. Kureishi interjected dryly:
‘I’ve got a CBE for English Literature, this ****’s got an A-level, I’ll sit where I like’.
Conversations with Kureishi seem to be a bit like that. They move from provocative witticism to provocative witticism and you sit wondering whether it’s one he’s just come up with, or whether it’s one he’s used fifteen times before.
In many ways it strikes me as oddly paradoxical that one of Britain’s most successful post-colonial writers turned up at the Palace, got down on his knees in front of the Queen, and accepted the honour of becoming a Commander of the British Empire at all. Particularly when the malignancy of the empire seems to orbit around Kureishi’s consciousness perpetually. Just a few minutes into our conversation and he points out that ‘in the last few years, this country has become desperate to dismiss its empirical engagement with the ‘third world’ in the colonial and post-colonial period. It wants to ignore the fact that this engagement is the real impetus for today’s fundamentalism’.
To his obvious amusement, I push him on the curious contradiction of accepting the medal while railing against the cause. ‘Well, there are a lot of people who have far more integrity than me. I thought it was terrific to get a CBE. My mother was very annoyed. She told me that she was a socialist and I should never have accepted it but I was really very pleased. I remember turning it over and reading ‘for God and Empire’.
‘There are no finer things in the world than the ones that don’t exist. It seemed so beautifully futile and after all those years of straining and trying to be accepted, I’d made it. I’m one of you now’.
Kureishi certainly has made it. His pioneering 1985 film, My Beautiful Laundrette, won the New York Film Critics Best Screenplay Award and was nominated for an Oscar. Five years later, he won the Whitbread award for the best first novel with The Buddha of Suburbia and in 2008 he was named one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945.
When I ask him when he felt at his most alive and when he felt at his most creatively productive, he responds almost instantly, ‘the 1980s, when Thatcherism provided the left with a really impressive enemy to argue with’.
Kureishi describes the 80s as an age of destruction, ‘there was the destruction of the trade unions, the destruction of any real political opposition, and of course, there was destruction of the working classes’. In response to the social ruination he saw all around him, Kureishi wrote the 1987 film, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, which he boldly characterised as ‘a declaration of war on the British establishment’. Professor Norman Stone, Margaret Thatcher’s advisor and speechwriter saw things differently, concluding acerbically that ‘for pointless sensationalism, sloppy attitudinising and general disgustingness the film deserves some sort of prize’.
All these years later and it feels as though he’s softened. He no longer appears to be quite as roguishly mordacious as he once was. I ask him whether in some sort of horribly ironic paradox, his artistic fight against the establishment has ultimately led to him becoming part of it. Kureishi responds indignantly, ‘I feel very far from the establishment’. He sounds out the syllables as though the word is toxically anathema to him.
The political establishment, he quite reasonably points out, ‘now has almost no allegiance to the people who elect them’. The establishment, in general, he observes, is becoming ‘a racist, corrupt, neoliberal and increasingly islamophobic circus’.
This comment interests me particularly. There was a time when Kureishi remembers he needed to call himself ‘a writer’ because otherwise he ‘was just a paki’. He has since said ‘we’re all mixed race now’. I suppose I took this to suggest that we have entered a very different era. I like to think that racism in Britain has gone from a roar to a whimper, the whimper of old men in pubs with soggy copies of The Sun and no mates. But perhaps that’s idealistic — I ask Kureishi how racist he perceives this country to be today?
‘In the last few years we’ve seen the construction of a new enemy. ‘The Muslim is the new commie’. He continues ‘there’s been a real effort to manufacture the idea that Islam is the enemy of liberalism. This is the new racism and it’s a phenomenon which is getting worse and worse. You see it in Britain, you see it in terms of the treatment of refugees in Europe and you certainly see it in America’. I start talking and Kureishi cuts me off; ‘America’s been blown to pieces’.
I ask him what he means? After all, so many of his ilk, from Martin Amis, to Rushdie, to Zadie Smith, have relocated there. ‘That’s only for the money they can make teaching, though’ he responds cynically. ‘The quality of their writing certainly hasn’t got any better. America as an alternative force, the America of Kerouac and latterly Dylan and Hendrix — that brash Warholian culture, that’s all gone now. It’s become a terrorist state — Muslims and blacks there are being terrorised. Notions of freedom and equality, they’ve been blown to pieces’.
I have to ask Kureishi, ‘so if Kerouac embodied the America of your youth, who embodies the America of today? ‘Lady Gaga of course’, he responds, ‘I’m a huge fan’.
So if not America, what about somewhere else? He might have once said ‘England without London would be a fucking dump’ but what about Scotland? Kureishi pauses for some time and then nonchalantly responds, ‘I don’t really know what goes on over there’. His response makes me laugh. I continue, well what about Scotland’s cultural identity? After struggling to get a word in for twenty minutes, I’m now struggling to get Kureishi to say anything. After some more thought he answers laconically, ‘well I mean, I know Irvine. I like his stuff and I like him personally. I can’t say I know much more than that’.
Like Irvine Welsh, but in a rather less grizzly fashion, drugs have featured in much of Kureishi’s work but Welsh gave it all up a long time ago. In a recent interview with Camilla Long, Welsh lamented that snorting a line now just makes him feel like he wants to go to bed. I ask Kureishi if he’s gone much the same way — if jogging and jasmine tea are now his fix? ‘Don’t worry about me Patrick’, he responds — ‘I still have my pleasures and actually they get better. When you get older you become an intelligent hedonist. I’m still a hedonist, I’m just not lying face down in the gutter with a traffic cone on my head. Do not fall for the foolishness of asceticism as you put it yourself, do not give up on your desire’.
Desire, according to Kureishi, is what keeps him going. I ask him what he would do if he wasn’t a writer but he draws a blank. ‘I couldn’t go out and work, I couldn’t sit at a desk doing something completely futile and stupid. I’m one of those people who can only do what I want to do, and when I do, I really like it and I’m good at it’. He goes on ‘fundamentally it’s about desire, people are at their best when their libido is involved, their sexuality, their pleasure. If I was doing something I didn’t want to do, day after day, I would just collapse’.