Revelations; I thought, I'll be a writer
The time: The Sixties The place: Ravenswood school, London The man: Hanif Kureishi
Tuesday 15 April 1997
My dad spent most of his time when he was at home writing his books (though none were ever published). He worked in an office at the Pakistan embassy and when they changed the typewriters, he brought the old ones home. So we had all these big old typewriters - one in every room - and I decided to teach myself to type. Soon I could copy out passages from books I was reading - such as Kerouac - and then I started to write my own stuff. It was mostly about school, pop groups, parties, girls, drugs.
I was just doing it for fun.
Then I remember this one day at school. We were reading some book - probably something by CS Forester - and I remember thinking, I am going to write a novel. I was sitting there, and I thought, I'm going to write a whole novel and finish it - because I can type. I had a sense of the future then. This is what I was going to do. I would write books and become a writer. That meant leaving the suburbs, going to London and living a different kind of life to the one expected of us, which was to live like our parents in a semi-detached and work in a bank.
I felt incredibly excited. I can't say that I knew what the book was going to be about - I hadn't got that far - and I didn't tell anyone. I started when I got home from school that day. I came home, went into my bedroom, put on my Jimi Hendrix record. I was sitting at my typewriter, eating peanut butter and toast, looking out of the window at the garden and listening to Purple Haze, and I started writing.
I don't know that there was much of a plot. I would go out and do things and go home and write them down. I called the book The Mysteries of London, even though it wasn't quite set in it. It was picaresque in a Sixties way. It was about going to parties, going to see bands, suburbia- and saving up and buying blue satin trousers, and then trying to get your mum to turn them up. (She refused. When I went out I used to wear them underneath my other trousers, which I then removed.)
I didn't tell my friends. It would have seemed a bit naff. It was a bit together, and you weren't supposed to be together then. You were supposed to be getting stoned. But I was very determined to get out of there. My parents knew because of the noise. They were big machines and the noise rumbled through the house. My dad was writing as well - mostly Bombay stories of his childhood - and he would write downstairs. Mine were about Bromley, and I was upstairs. He would listen to Rachmaninoff and I would listen to Jimi.
That's where I learnt the discipline of writing every day. I wrote hundreds of pages and then I threw a lot of them away. I can't remember the details - it was 30 years ago - but in those days you didn't want it to be too much in order; you wanted the chaos of the book to represent the chaos of your life. I did write the whole book. I took about a year.
My dad knew a woman who was a secretary to a publisher. She gave him The Mysteries of London. He said it was promising and that I should carry on. I did. I rewrote that book and sent it back to him and then I wrote others. I wrote about four books from the age of 14 to 18. It was a case of get home from school, have your tea, watch Blue Peter, listen to records, and write. It was sort of a secret life.
I was a terrible student. I had a bad time at school and was never that interested. But I was doing this interesting thing - writing these books - and that made me very interested in reading because if you are writing, you think "How did he do it?" I read lots of American books - Salinger, Roth, Bellow and Mailer. They were writing about contemporary life in a way that British writers weren't. Writing didn't come easily to me - I couldn't say that - but it came naturally. I found stories in my head.
When I asked for a story, I found one.
I suppose the reason I didn't tell anyone was that I was afraid of being mocked. This ambition, this desire to be a writer, just seemed so grand compared to what was expected of us. I think I felt rather ashamed, perhaps because it singled me out because it meant that, at age 14 and 15, I was already thinking of the future. I wasn't there any more. In my head I was out.
Nothing else was self-determined. If you are an Asian kid on the streets of south London you feel victimised, not only because people gob on you and hit you, but also because they have ideas about you that have nothing to do with anything but your face. So writing was a way of keeping myself, my personality, my head, together. And a kind of revenge, too.
A book is your own version of the world, not their version. If you are a victim, if you are being humiliated, you need to have your own version. It is my world in my book. I'm in charge: all the characters do what I say. It's a way of grasping some power.
That set the pattern for my writing every day. I feel all that groundwork was important - to have the discipline, to do it when you don't feel like doing it, of developing your material and your talent seriously. I knew you had to write a lot. You write a lot and make a lot of mistakes and then you get a sense of how to organise material. I suppose a lot of the material from those books ended up in The Buddha of Suburbia.
Now I write in the morning, but I still write every day. If I don't, it is as if I haven't done something essential. I've carried on doing the same thing now as when I was sitting in that bedroom. I have done that for a living ever since that day in that classroom. There are very few occasions that you can say something really changed, but that was one of them.
I really had thought, hoped, those first novels would be published. It was a wonderful naivety - the best kind of naivety - that says that you can do anything before you realise that you can't. There was no cynicism there. A few years ago - maybe five or so - I found the books in the attic at my mother's house. They were in a big trunk. I took them down the garden and burnt them. I guess I was afraid somebody might read them and think I was a fool. I was ashamed of what I felt, and of their clumsiness and their foolishness and their innocence. I didn't read them; I just burnt them. I shouldn't have done so, but I did.
Hanif Kureishi's new book of short stories, 'Love in a Blue Time', is published by Faber
and Faber, price pounds 8.99.
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