I spent the first Saturday night after Keith Waterhouse died in the National Theatre watching a play by Hanif Kureishi. I hadn’t previously strung these two men together, but in both cases I find my preconceptions about them were rather askew.
Waterhouse, for me, was locked inside the Daily Mail, an avuncular but grumpy old man glimpsed only on visits to grandparents when the only newspaper available was the Mail. He always seemed a rather prejudiced throwback to an era when white men with typewriters were masters of their domain, now forced to grumble randomly about declining standards, Tony Bloody Blair and misplaced apostrophes.
Kureishi, on the other hand, I’d always taken to be a bit of a fraud, someone who’d made very little go a long way, who’d parlayed a rather slight little story (My Beautiful Laundrette) into a rather slight and often pretentious career.
Well, wrong and wrong. I forced myself to read Waterhouse’s recent columns on the Daily Mail website, and found them to be a lot larger-hearted than I remembered, even at the fag-end of a nicotine-stained career. His description of Gordon Brown as “tin-eared” is as accurate a political epithet as you could hope for.
And the production of Kureishi’s play The Black Album (based on his novel, a slight thing which I hadn’t read) was rather wonderful. Put on by Tara Arts, its first half was just about good enough to make you come back after the interval, but its second half was pacy and clever. Set in 1989, it’s the story of a young Muslim man with a penchant for writing and books who’s tempted by the stirring of Islamist fundamentalism sparked by the Rushdie fatwa, but who rejects it in favour of free speech and free love with his lecturer. Now Kureishi’s told this story several times before, but the interplay of the cynical sister-in-law who’s a friend of Benazhir Bhutto with the equally cynical fundamentalist muppet from the mosque was fantastically written, very funny and terribly poignant given where Pakistan now finds itself.
What links Kureishi and Waterhouse, I think, is their love of a good joke. Nothing in their world is so serious or awful that it can’t be ameliorated with a spot of wordplay. Their prejudices and pretensions are obvious and frequent, but both of them have an impatience with cliche and a (dare I say it?) rather English sense that there is something rather wrong with people who can’t see the funny side.