Wednesday, 7 March 2018

The Buddha Of Suburbia - Hanif Kureishi


I presume everybody's read Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha Of Suburbia by now? At one time it seemed to be everywhere you turned: book shops, charity shops, haberdasheries, dentist waiting rooms. It was ubiquitous. There's no need, then, to go into any detail about it here as we all know what it's about if not by reading it then by having watched the TV adaptation. I would say this though: The Buddha Of Suburbia contains one of the best descriptions about encountering Punk Rock for the first time that I've ever read.

The character of Charlie Hero, Karim's friend who ends up as a rock star in America, is presumably based on Billy Idol? Kureishi grew up in Bromley, in South London, so would have been familiar with the Bromley contingent, the early followers of the Sex Pistols who went on to form Siouxsie And The Banshees or became acolytes of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood.
In the book, Karim and Charlie go to the Nashville one night and it's there that their encounter with Punk Rock takes place. It's worth repeating:
'… at the front of the place, near the stage, there were about thirty kids in ripped black clothes. And the clothes were full of safety pins. Their hair was uniformly black, and cut short, seriously short, or if long it was spiky and rigid, sticking up and out and sideways, like a handful of needles, rather than hanging down. A hurricane would not have dislodged those styles. The girls were in rubber and leather and wore skin-tight skirts and holed black stockings, with white face-slap and bright-red lipstick. They snarled and bit people. Accompanying these kids were what appeared to be three extravagant South American transvestites in dresses, rouge and lipstick, one of whom had a used tampon on a piece of string around her neck. Charlie stirred restlessly as he leaned there. He hugged himself in self-pity as we took in this alien race dressed with an abandonment and originality we'd never imagined possible. I began to understand what London meant and what class of outrage we had to deal with. It certainly put us in proportion.
What is this shit?” Charlie said. He was dismissive, but he was slightly breathless too, there was awe in his voice.
And look at the stage,” Charlie said. “What rubbish is this? Why have you brought me out for this?”
D'you wanna go, then?”
Yes. All this is making me feel sick.”
OK,” I said “Lean on my shoulder and we'll get you out of here. I don't like the look of it either. It's too weird.”
Yeah, much too weird.”
It's too much.”
But before we could move the band shambled on, young kids in clothes similar to the audience. The fans suddenly started to bounce up and down. As they pumped into the air and threw themselves sideways they screamed and spat at the band until the singer, a skinny little kid with carroty hair, dripped with saliva. He seemed to expect this, and merely abused the audience back, spitting at them, skidding over on to his arse once, and drinking and slouching around the stage as if he were in his living room. His purpose was not to be charismatic, he would be himself in whatever mundane way it took. The little kid wanted to be an anti-star, and I couldn't take my eyes off him. It must have been worse for Charlie.
He's an idiot,” Charlie said.
And I bet they can't play either. Look at those instruments. Where did they get them, a jumble sale?”
Right,” I said.
Unprofessional,” he said.
When the shambolic group finally started up, the music was thrashed out. It was more aggressive than anything I'd heard since early Who. This was no peace and love; here were no drum solos or effeminate synthesizers. Not a squeeze of anything 'progressive' or 'experimental' came from these pallid, vicious little council estate kids with hedgehog hair, howling about anarchy and hatred. No song lasted more than three minutes, and after each the carrot-haired kid cursed us to death. He seemed to be yelling directly at Charlie and me. I could feel Charlie getting tense beside me. I knew London was killing us as I heard “Fuck off, all you smelly old hippies! You fucking slags! You ugly fart-breaths! Fuck off to hell!” he shouted at us.
I didn't look at Charlie again, until the end. As the lights came up I saw he was standing up straight and alert, with cubes of dried vomit decorating his cheeks.
Let's go,” I said.
We were numb; we didn't want to speak for fear of returning to our banal selves again. The wild kids bundled out. Charlie and I elbowed our way through the crowd. Then he stopped.
What is it, Charlie?”
I've got to get backstage and talk to those guys.”
I snorted. “Why would they want to talk to you?”
I thought he'd hit me, but he took it well.
Yeah, there's no reason why they should like me,” he said. “If I saw me coming into the dressing room I'd have myself kicked out.”
Charlie was excited. “That's it, that's it,” he said as we strolled. “That's fucking it.” His voice was squeaky with rapture. “The sixties have been given notice tonight. Those kids we saw have assassinated all hope. They're the fucking future.”'

Of course, Kureishi's description is full of clichés but then wasn't Punk a re-imagining of clichés? Wasn't this the canvas scratched and vandalised for it to have new visions scrawled upon it? Punk Rock and all its Year Zero declarations, ethics and mores was cliche-ridden to the max though the big difference was that the Punk prophets didn't care. And by Punk prophets I mean not just those in bands but even more so those in the actual audience.
Kureishi's description captures a moment in time that doesn't happen that often. William Burroughs described it as a 'naked lunch', a frozen moment when you see what is on the end of the fork. William Blake described it as 'illumination'. Sartre described it as 'nausea'. Kureishi's description captures nothing less than a moment of revelation.

The only other part of The Buddha Of Suburbia worth highlighting is when Karim and his girlfriend Eleanor are at the home of the radical theatre director Pyke and his wife Marlene, and they're about to have an orgy:
'Marlene fell back on to the couch, naked, with her legs open.
There's so much we can do tonight!” she cried. “There's hours and hours of total pleasure ahead of us. We can do whatever we want. We've only just begun. Let me freshen our drinks and we'll get down to it. Now, Karim, I want you to put some ice up my cunt. Would you mind going to the fridge?”'
Punk Rock and kinky sex. Is that all we're really interested in? Are we just perverted? Should we be seeking help of the psychiatric kind? Or is that just me?
Let's just blame it on Hanif Kureishi, shall we?
John Serpico


  1. I’d never thought about it being Billy Idol before - always assumed it was an updated Bowie, that Bromley connection again, but perhaps that was simply the theme from the tv series? Punk rock and sex, it’s a good a reason to exist as any I suppose (and better than most!)

    1. You're not wrong, Bel Mondo, you're not wrong.