The afternoon I meet Hanif Kureishi seems fittingly ominous, with dark skies and swirling wind a reflection of the political weather. Over in Westminster, Theresa May is busy triggering Article 50, and fulfilling the will of the British people (little did we know, of course, what further turbulence was to come, with the election being called). Meanwhile, Kureishi and I set up shop in a jolly brasserie in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, with polished wood and a chequerboard floor; he sips a glass of red, I chug an espresso and, despite the day, there is something cheerfully European about the whole scene.
There’s also something about Kureishi that chimes with the mood of the times: laconic and deadpan in manner, he alternates between intense seriousness and comical flippancy; there’s a sort of throwaway, geezer donnishness to him. Here we are, he points out with relish, “the hated metropolitan elite”, as if it is chiefly a matter of naughtiness, of occupying the countercultural margins. But at the close of our conversation, when I ask him if there’s anything he would like to expand on, he becomes focused and exact: race, he says, is the thing he thinks and worries about the most.
He refers to the Britain of his youth and early adulthood (he is now 62), which he memorably charted in early work such as My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and The Buddha of Suburbia; the waning of the racism of early multiculturalism and of the emergence of London, “a new idea”.
“And then,” he continues, “the turn against it from, apparently, the rest of the country.” He invokes his father, Rafiushan, who came to this country from India, via Pakistan, in his 20s, married an English woman called Audrey and with her brought up two children in Bromley, south London; Kureishi commemorated their relationship in his 2004 memoir, My Ear at His Heart. “The idea of the immigrant coming here to take your benefits, take your women, laze around, watch telly, all of that … ” he says now. “Immigrants are the hardest working people. My father used to say to me, and I say to my kids every day, we haven’t come here to sit around, we’ve come here to make a living, serve this country, work. That has been very shocking and disappointing, and upsets me.”
Not just disappointed: angry at the lack of acknowledgement of the role postcolonial immigrant communities have played, “that Britain’s wealth came out of the empire, and we all came here, to Bradford, to the NHS, to the transport system, and how the Commonwealth and the ex-empire created the wealth of this country. And I feel very bitter about the hatred that is directed against us on a racial basis, when in fact we have served this country. My father was a British subject; my father hated the idea that people would say he was an immigrant. He wasn’t someone from elsewhere, he was from India, which was part of the British empire. The lack of gratitude, or sense of history, that the wealth of this great city, one of the greatest in the world, comes out of Britain’s relations with the rest of the world — that is so horrific to me.”
The country he thought of as a place of tolerance has now, he fears, provided a space for an “utterly misconceived and misplaced and vile” form of racism, the demonisation of the Other, the positioning of Muslims as “backward, misogynistic, racist, anti-gay”, the like of which he says we haven’t seen since the 1930s. But he insists: “I don’t think it’s the working class. People say it’s the working class, finally they have risen up, had enough, been deprived, and finally said, ‘Well it’s the Poles and the Pakis,’ et cetera. I don’t think so. I think it’s a large section of the middle class who are really losing their place. They are more racist than they have ever been.”
Grimly urgent though this subject is, we talk of much else besides: writing for and watching television; his 23-year-old twin sons, Carlo and Sachin, with whom he is working on small-screen projects; the ever-changing nature of sexuality, so evid-ent just now; the long legacy of the 1960s. In fact, though, our central purpose in meeting is The Nothing, Kureishi’s seventh novel — there are also three collections of short stories, and plays, screenplays and non-fiction. The Nothing, a punchy, disturbing fable, tells of an elderly filmmaker, Waldo, confined to his flat by physical disintegration and approaching death, and the lengths he takes to head off his younger wife’s affair with a charming wastrel.
“Go on,” says Kureishi, when I turn to the book. “Thrash me!”
But I enjoyed it, I reply. “Did you? Good.” He envisaged it as a B movie, he explains; he’d been watching a lot of noir — “gangsters, con men, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Rita Hayworth, all those movies” — and reading Simenon, whom he loves.
“As you get older, and your friends get older and more infirm, you get this sense of leaving, and one feels it oneself, this leaving the world,” Kureishi says. Despite his not feeling up to writing 1,000-page bildungsromans, there seems little evidence of this. There is also, in the novel’s depiction of cuckoo in the nest Eddie, a thoroughly recognisable type: the chancer, half-contemptible, half-pitiable; always, as Waldo points out, first at the party to hop on to someone else’s drinks tab.
But for Kureishi, Eddie was more than a bon viveur sponger. He was also drawn from the writer’s real-life experience of being swindled by his accountant, captured in Kureishi’s 2014 essay, A Theft: My Con Man. “Naturally,” he wrote then, “I identified with the con man and his omnipotence over the other, and not with his victims. But in this case I was the victim; I was the seduced, taken one. Jeff Chandler [the name Kureishi gave his accountant in the essay] had helped himself to my money, and he had robbed me of more than that: of an orientating and useful connection with reality, which, once it had slipped away, left me feeling bereft, abject, dizzy and out of control. He had done me over, and done me in.”
Now, he still ponders on how “ashamed you feel, how powerless. You think, ‘How could somebody like me, a reasonably smart person, get so [expletive] over by another?’”
I point out to him that his recent work — The Last Word, for example, his 2014 novel about an ageing, monstrous novelist, his wives and his ghostwriter — has tended towards the enclosed, the domestic; he also cites his screen work, such as his collaboration with Roger Michell on the marital drama, Le Week-End. But now, he says, “I’m writing a kid thing”, referring to a six-part TV series he’s working on with Sachin, which centres on a young Syrian refugee who comes to work as a driver for a rock star in Notting Hill. “He’s doing most of the work,” he says of his son.
Sachin’s brother, Carlo (the twins are the children of Kureishi’s marriage to Tracey Scoffield; he also has a son, Kier, with his partner Monique Proudlove) is also collaborating with his father on a TV project. “I said, ‘Listen, mate, you’re getting so much attention. You should be so lucky, you wouldn’t get this at university’.”
Kureishi sees the process as a gift to both his sons, a liberation from the current vicissitudes of the employment market: “They worked as interns like everybody does, making tea, then they worked in bars for six quid an hour, then they were sitting at home doing nothing, so I said let’s write a movie.”
Clearly — although he would probably steer clear of such soppy language — it’s enriching him, too. “I never had a sort of third age relationship with my parents. When I left home at 17 or 18, and came to London, I never looked back. Obviously I saw them, rang them up, all of that, but we never worked together in this kind of way, we never collaborated together in a new way. So it’s an experiment, as it were, to see what’s it like to be friends with your own children.”
Harnessing his children’s energy is also a way for Kureishi to expand his already prolific work for the screen; he hasn’t enough oomph to write six hours of TV on his own, he insists. And yet he sees the medium — particularly US TV, and ground-breaking shows such as Transparent — as a magnet for innovation and imagination.
And for audiences: “Everybody watches television — you go round anybody’s house for a drink or for dinner, they are all saying we’re watching this, we’re watching that, they can’t wait for you to go home so they can carry on watching The Americans.” We discuss whether novels ever commanded this sort of cultural space, and Kureishi riffs on the days when everyone read Calvino, Kundera, Garcia Marquez. “If you didn’t know who Jean-Paul Sartre was, you couldn’t go to a party.” Has that disappeared? “I don’t know if it occupies the same place. It would be a shame.”
Kureishi describes his own early years of work — the Royal Court at 18, the Riverside, the BBC — as characterised by “a lot of breaks”, and by the attention and kindness of others. One of the things he is keenest to impart to his sons is that, while there are a thousand things you need to know about writing, perhaps the most important is to be able to deal with the frustration and boredom of it — especially in the rewrite-obsessed world of TV.
Sachin, he says, asked him if it was always like that, having to do things over and over again. “I said yeah, and that’s why I write novels, because when you write novels, no one [expletive] you about. You write it, and they publish it.”
–Guardian News & Media Ltd