Friday, February 29, 2008

Putting Britain On The Couch: Hanif Kureishi And The Country's Midlife Crisis

Reading Hanif Kureishi’s new book, Something To Tell You, it’s hard to resist the feeling that it was the product of a midlife crisis. The novel surveys the grand sweep of a lifetime, re-evaluating the politics and culture of the last 50 years. This being Kureishi, it is studded with autobiography. His hero is a middle-aged British-Asian from Bromley, struggling to come to terms with the irresponsibility of his youth. There is incest, murder, and a splash of psycho-analysis, as the history of multi-cultural Britain chunters past, from the industrial disputes of the 1970s, through the materialistic Thatcher years, and on to the moral flabbiness of the Blair-Bush era. His hero, like the author, travels through disappointed radicalism into the podgy compromises of middle age, while sneering at the “trashy media class” of which he is at least a part-time member.
Kureishi, as far as we know, has not committed murder or incest, but he doesn’t disagree with the suggestion that the book was prompted by turning 50. (He’s 53 now). It is his attempt to consider the last half-century, “which is really the history of immigration, and cultural change, and people like my father getting off the boat and coming in to England. And here we are 50 years later arguing about whether they should have Sharia law in Dorset. How could you not be fascinated by that?
“It’s not only a crisis for me but a crisis for the country: ie what sort of Britain is it? What’s the identity of Britain? It’s the midlife crisis of our country.”
I meet Kureishi at his agent’s Notting Hill office. He is dressed soberly, in a dark overcoat, deep indigo jeans and – a hint of rakishness – Al Capone brogues. He is a watchful interviewee; not exactly friendly, sparing with his laughter, and in the habit of describing things he disagrees with as “hilarious”. Some of the things he finds hilarious are funnier than others. The convulsions of the British state over the war on terror are hilarious, as are that morning’s newspaper reports about the side-effects of multiculturalism making Britain “a terror target”.
“It’s hilarious,” Kureishi says haughtily. “I want to cut that out and study it.”
Looking at Kureishi now, with his grey hair and his cold stare, you might not connect him with the taboo-stretching rebel who remoulded his own experience into The Buddha of Suburbia, but the pop sociology of Something To Tell You is welcome after a period of painful – some say exploitative - introspection. There is a sense that the author’s voice has recovered its vitality. Or maybe we’re just ready to hear what he’s been saying all along.
Kureishi was one of the first writers to identify the dangers posed by Islamism, in his 1995 novel The Black Album, and his 1997 film, My Son The Fanatic. But, while shocked by the hateful preaching he encountered in London mosques, he understands the appeal of Muslim extremism. “Radical Islam was a movement of liberation. It came out of colonialism. My father identified with the Muslim League, because this was a way of keeping the Brits out of India, and an identification with other Muslims, who would then create their own state which became Pakistan.
“In Iran the Muslims and the clerics were radicals against the Shah and the United States. It began as a movement of liberation, and has now become, like many liberation movements, a form of fascism.”
The appeal is Islamism to British-born Muslims is, he says, a by-product of racism. “You live in a country where people consider you to be Paki Scum, the idea then that you get some power by identifying with your Muslim brothers is very important.
“But most Muslims are not radical. Most Muslims want exactly the same things that you and I want. They don’t want to live under a cleric. They want to go to school and they want hospitals.
“There’s a lot of fantasising going on about what Muslims are, and that’s where the racism comes in.”
When he was growing up in South London, the National Front was marching through Catford and Peckham – a period he recalled in My Beautiful Laundrette. But a recent visit to Germany shocked him. There, he was repeatedly asked about his experience as an immigrant, and whether he was feeling “settled” in Britain. “In England we don’t even think like that. But they think of this homogenous Teutonic culture with these Pakis round the edge who are trying to take their jobs. That’s like the 1970s to me.
“The good thing about London is it’s not England. It’s like an independent city state. There are even Mongolians living down my street now. The Germans say ‘how are you getting on with the English?’ and you think, I’ve never met any bloody English. There’s nobody English in my street. Not one. The idea that there’s a couple of Pakis and mostly English people – it’s ridiculous.”
London he says, and is an example of how multiculturalism can work. “At the moment, there are no people killing each other for racial motives. They’re killing each other for lots of other reasons, but not for racism. You either make it work, or there’s fascism. Everybody’s identity’s got to change, everybody’s got to be tamed.”
He traces the roots of multiculturalism back to John Stuart Mill. “It’s the idea that people are allowed to do whatever they want, be whatever they want, say whatever they want. As long as they don’t become violent and impose themselves on other people, it’s a fantastic idea.
“And now we’ve really gone back. People go on and on: I heard somebody on the radio saying ‘they don’t integrate’. Well the royal family doesn’t integrate. Rich people don’t integrate. Why is it only the Muslims who are not integrating? It’s so racist.”
While writing Something To Tell You, Kureishi also completed My Ear At His Heart, a memoir about his relationship with his late father, a civil servant in the Pakistani Embassy. The book was Kureishi’s attempt to understand the tensions in the father-son relationship, and their “violent oedipal arguments”. His sister Yasmin objected to what she saw as a Stalinist reworking of family history, calling it “hyped-up twaddle”, but it wasn’t a book which displayed the author in a particularly gorgeous light. Kureishi, who admits the 1970s and 1980s saw him “incapacitated by symptoms, phobias, fears” and a sense of futility and self-absorption, wrote that the death of his father in 1991 prompted him to embark on hedonistic spree of “cocaine, amyl nitrate, Ecstasy, alcohol, grass”. It was, he wrote, “as though I were trying to kill something, or bring something in myself to life.”
The rivalry stemmed from the fact that Kureishi Sr was an unpublished author. “When I became successful, it hurt him. It made it very tricky for me, because here was a boy who was hurting his father for no reason at all.” Yet, “the things that I love now about the world, he taught me, which are to do with literature, to do with music, to do with dissent, to do with hating radical Islam, authority. All of that I got from my father, who grew up during the period of British rule in India. My father was the underdog then, too. He hated the English. So growing up with that sort of dissenting spirit is something I’m grateful for.”
When I ask about Kureishi’s mother, his voice takes on a faraway tone, as if he is trying to remember the contents of a lost shopping list, which is odd, as his mother is still alive. “My mum used to take me to the library. My mother had been an artist. My mother was rather intelligent. My mother was rather depressed because she was a housewife. My mother was the generation just before the feminists. So my mum was at home doing the washing with her hands, lighting the fires, doing all the mother stuff.
“My mum was rather repressed, but she was also very brave, because she married a Pakistani, a brown man. She was very shocked – it didn’t occur to her that people would shout ‘Paki-lover’ at her in the street. There was a lot of casual everyday racism. I remember the neighbours saying, if it was a warm day: ‘You Indians like the warm, don’t you?’ Stuff like that all the time.”
On the optimistic side, he seems contented with his own life, particularly when talking about his children. He has three sons: 14 year-old twins, Sachin and Carlo, by his former partner, Tracey Scoffield, and a younger son, Kier, with his current partner, Monique Proudlove. Kureishi’s appropriation of the break-up of the first relationship in his book Intimacy was not appreciated at the time, but diplomacy seems to have prevailed, and he lives near the twins in Shepherd’s Bush. He notes with some satisfaction that their blurred racial identity has become cool. “My kids would be shocked by racism . They’re not used to it. There was a Russian girl in class at school who said ‘I’m not going to sit next to any Jews or niggers.’ And they’d never heard anything like that before.”
He looks, in these moments, every inch the contented dad. “They’re very good company,” he says. “They haven’t started drinking or smoking. They haven’t moved into the decadent years. They’re in the ‘fuck off’ years. ‘Fuck off. Just fuck off.’ There’s a lot of that. But they haven’t become self-destructive yet.”
And with the wisdom of middle age, how does Kureishi regard his own flirtation with self-destruction?
“I’m still in the hedonism years,” he says, laughing. “I hope.”
Is it still fun?
“It doesn’t save your life, which is what I used to believe. It’s as though I believed that finding a drug, or finding a woman, would suddenly make everything all right about my life and about the world. I had a lot hope in terms of decadence: that I could disappear into this abyss of pleasure, that I wouldn’t have to worry, I wouldn’t have the anxiety of a normal person.
“I know that if I get pissed tonight I’m going to feel awful tomorrow. I know that perfectly well, so I’ll make a decision not to. And that’s both mature and dumb.”
The writer’s midlife crisis seems to be under control. The country’s may take longer.
Something To Tell You is published by Faber on 6 March.