Hanif Kureishi on Bromley: ‘Words were my lifeline out of zombie boredom’
In the drawer of the desk I have used for decades there is a notebook wrapped in brown paper, which I started in 1964 when I was 10, and had filled by 1974.
It contains a year-by-year list of the books I read, almost all of which I borrowed from libraries in the south London suburbs, which I’d cycle to every afternoon after school.
My eldest son was amazed when I showed it to him, and he even turned the pages for a few minutes. “You were 11 years old and you read 86 books in one year!” Yes; I began with Biggles, Enid Blyton, Arthur Ransome and the autobiographies of footballers and cricketers. In the middle I read Nevil Shute, Nicholas Monsarrat, Len Deighton and Erskine Caldwell, writers pretty much forgotten now, as most of us will be. But in 1974, I’m relieved to see that I go out on a high, with Marcel Proust, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Friedrich Nietzsche.
I was thrilled to have impressed my son at last. Then he added: “But I guess there was nothing else to do in the evenings.”
He was right about that. Yet out of the interminable zombie boredom and restlessness of Bromley – a commuter town placed between the city and the Kent countryside – a lot happened while nothing appeared to be happening. Much of this went into my first novel The Buddha of Suburbia, which, despite the dour reality, I managed to make into a comedy about being mixed-race in Britain during the punk era.
I’d never had the conviction I was cut out for regular work like other men in the neighbourhood. My interesting friends dressed like Jimi Hendrix and went into music. But for me, words were the lifeline. One morning at school, staring out of the window, it occurred to me to become a writer. Being an artist for a living was surely the loveliest thing! Suddenly the world appeared to open up. For the first time I had an identity and future. I was going somewhere.
All writers are readers first, and I read everything in the newspapers we had delivered, the Guardian and the Daily Express. When I became a paperboy I sat on the kerb to read them at 6.30am. While eating, I even found myself reading the labels on ketchup jars; and most weekends my father would drag me around secondhand bookshops on Charing Cross Road, a habit I still can’t give up. Flipping through my notebook I can see my preoccupations then – literature, politics, sport, philosophy and, importantly, people’s passion for one another – are still my preoccupations.
Experience is always too much when you’re young, but there were writers who knew how to pin it down and even make it enticing. I wanted to do that. I was looking for something that could be called inspiration, because words come out of other words, and writers come from other writers. Influence is essential and if you’re lucky one day the Muse will deign to give you a kiss, making you race to your desk and stay there, mixing what you’ve read with reality to make a new story for others.
• Hanif Kureishi’s most recent novel is The Nothing (Faber).