In a London of Infinite Possibilities

In his story “The Body” (2002), Hanif Kureishi made his main character reflect on London. The place, he thought, was

no longer part of Britain—in my view, a dreary, narrow place full of fields, boarded-up shops and cities trying to imitate London—but has developed into an independent city-state, like New York, and has begun to come to terms with the importance of gratification.

Kureishi is right about that importance. On the old English principle of “Well, why not? Might as well give it a go,” people of every origin and culture have spent the last few decades getting high on warm alco-pops, gulping and sniffing cheap illegal drugs, and hopping under each others’ musty-smelling duvets to breed new and thrilling ethnicities. Gratification has produced a new London, increasingly moving beyond “multiculturalism” into a real hybridity. It’s not in the least like that nervous “swinging London” of the 1960s. This is a confident megalopolis where the pursuit of pleasure and “fulfillment” has spread out to the edges, not confined, as it was back then, to a few media-infested lanes like Kings Road, Chelsea, or Carnaby Street. Kureishi, himself born in south London, has an acute sense (as Dickens had) of the relationship between urban district, social class, and behavior. His concentric London has a core district of theaters, abbeys, and restaurants (this zone interests him least), then a thick ring of decayed, swarming residential boroughs, and then a vast low-rise spread of suburbs. His first novel, The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), was divided into two parts, “In the Suburbs” and “In the City,” and the aspirational life-journey from outer districts to central city is a track along which most of his longer fiction is laid. If an addicted Kureishi reader were to imagine one of his suburban houses, it would be a two-story brick box in a row with scores of almost identical others. Behind it lies a moist, wildly overgrown back garden terminating in a World War II air-raid shelter; inside the house lives a turbulent family in which Father—probably Indian or Pakistani—is struggling to run a small shop and bullying his children into taking education seriously. This is the lower middle class, where the young are expected to work and study hard and to organize their lives for the future. But the children who rebel against these pressures escape into the tall-housed residential districts around the center (for Kureishi’s people this usually means West Kensington or Shepherd’s Bush). There they get down to gratification and self-expression, in company with the other colonists and refugees who have taken over these shabby streets. As the main character in Something to Tell You says about Shepherd’s Bush and the Uxbridge Road:

It always cheered me to walk here. This wasn’t the ghetto; the ghetto was Belgravia, Knightsbridge and parts of Notting Hill [i.e., areas still rich, white, and mostly English]. This was London as a world city.

The protagonist of Something to Tell You is Jamal Khan,…


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