Part 1: About You
Where did you grow up and what are your cultural influences?
I was born in Lewisham in the year of The Monkey, brought up in southeast London in the 1970s and 1980s, and, for all its (and my) faults, still live in the area, just a few hundred yards from where I was born.
Cultural influences? Hmm, how long is a piece of string? So many to choose from, but just off the top of my head, there's a few that particularly stand out, and some common threads linking them.
Let's start with the area itself. The good thing about south London proper - i.e. the portion that exists off the grid, with no tube network - is that it's always been slightly harder to get to than, say, Brixton. That relative inaccessibility is reflected in its overall ambience, which over the years has been largely about getting on with it without too much fuss. There's a resilience and a self-containment that goes with that, and, speaking personally, that has some very particular cultural dimensions to it. The more concerning aspect, vivid memories of cowering in Mothercare (appropriately enough, with my Ma) as hordes of Millwall (the local team) rampaged through the newly opened Lewisham shopping centre. Kids at my first school were largely Millwall, so, in true dissident fashion, I chose West Ham instead. Or rather it chose me. Panini football cards, tribal loyalties, these details were more like background noise, but mostly it was just about knuckling down, showing your true colours in the playground. Bear in mind that this was the 1970s, a time of intense racial violence. 'Paki bashing' was for many almost a recreational activity, and the National Front was popular. So already, just by kicking, or hitting a ball, especially as an Asian kid, you were making a statement: I'm not scared, I get stuck in (even if the truth was anything but). This was the era of rush goalies, three-and-in, and sticks (cricket stumps) painted on walls. Being, or at any rate, showing you were scared, was not an option.
The flipside of all that aggro was a studied interiority. Hardly surprising when you think about it. So from very young I'd always search out quiet places, both mentally and physically. Hence a lifelong love of libraries. Funnily enough, the old Lewisham library (next to the Register Office) had the same parquet flooring as school, but it was beautifully quiet. A place to think and read, or maybe just to recompose. After all, how you carry yourself is always half the battle.
Test match cricket and books were the rhythm and pacing of summer, football and books that of winter. So reading, its interiority, absorption, was always a common denominator growing up. My love of that was definitely instilled in me in the first place by my Ma, who resolutely addressed the yawning gaps in my knowledge left by the Local Education Authority. She taught me to read and write and spell but, more than that, made it very clear that without the self-discipline required to do those things, life in general would not move on. A royal pain at the time, but the more time passes, the more grateful I am for having learned that lesson early. I think in some way, perhaps through its intense focus, it also heightened my appreciation of what else was out there beyond the books.
The Lewisham Odeon was a fantastic art deco cinema and music venue, and it even had one of those swirling organs that would rise up from beneath the stage, so films and music were always shrouded in a kind of magic for me. That's stayed with me to the present day, though sadly the Odeon is long gone. Actually my formative years coincided with a peculiarly rich strain of pop cultural invention - films like Taxi Driver or the cult classic Babylon (partly filmed in Lewisham!), and a whirligig of sound - pop, punk, reggae, jazz-funk, 2 Tone - and if you're lucky enough to grow up in this city, then full exposure is most certainly an option. For this child of immigrants, refugees at that, this was an opportunity far too exciting to pass up. So I've always been partial to flitting between the tribes - ‘code switching’, I believe they call it nowadays. But it's nothing new and, honestly, to be any other way would feel odd, if not plain wrong, to me. The postcode by itself was never going to be enough. Hence the journeys without limit undertaken through books, as well as the ones whose eventual destination was Upton Park, or the free Ravi Shankar gig in Battersea Park, or the labyrinthine network of record shops, music flyers and warehouse parties all underscored by the local powerhouse that was Saxon Studio Sound System. Happy memories of Smiley Culture and Tippa Irie, the mischief and invention of 'Cockney Translation', the modernist genius of Sam Selvon, the sheer unalloyed joy of pirate radio broadcasting out of the high rises. Reggae, soul, jazz-funk through house, hip hop and jungle. (By which point life, and age, took over, along with the creeping realisation that the intended demographic once again, and quite rightly, lay elsewhere.)
When did you realise you have a love and talent for writing?
To paraphrase Henry Hill, as far back as my memories go, I’ve always enjoyed writing. More to the point, I was a reader first before I ever thought of myself as a writer. Head in a book imbibing a tale, which was basically anything I could get my hands on, but also, albeit unwittingly, studying the form, storing little piecemeal details for later, long before I ever possessed even a rudimentary language to make sense of the contents. Why does this story work and that one not? Which words stand out? Which sentences do you find yourself going back to? I was frequently bored and out on a limb at school, so I did what came most naturally to a restless soul. I started making things up, in person and on paper, and discovered it was a lot more fun, and certainly more engaging than anything being taught in class.
How did you begin your career in journalism?
The journalism came about in the early ‘90s. With impeccable timing I graduated right into the middle of a fairly steep recession, where jobs were few and far between. After about a year of working on a market stall in south London selling vintage clothes and jewellery, it occurred to me that this wasn’t perhaps the best use of my degree. Actually, the work was fine but those 5am starts to secure the pitch, just about bearable during summer, became a bit of a horror show once winter kicked in. So I was very relieved to be accepted onto a BBC training programme round about this time, thus narrowly avoiding the prospect of a second consecutive winter shivering in the largely unprofitable dark.
What would you say have been the highlights of your career?
Very occasionally seeing a flicker of recognition in one of my young charges during many years of youth work, when some snippet of advice had actually proved useful in some way. Rare, but not unknown. Lecturing at the LSE. Look, I’m probably an overeducated fool, but I won’t lie, it always felt good stepping up to the lectern, clearing my throat and being listened to in a place with a heavyweight rep. Even better with the knowledge that several decades earlier, that same voice was being labelled ‘illiterate’ by the ‘proper authorities’. Seeing my first feature article in print with ‘2nd Generation’ magazine all those years back. Deejaying at the ICA, Happiness Stans, and too many parties, anniversaries and dimly lit celebrations to remember, when the real joy was what would happen not if, but when, the inevitable snafu kicked in. An especially joyous night at the old Hope and Anchor where the sounds, and the carousing, went toe to toe all the way through an extravagant lock-in. And, of course, finally seeing my novel in print, and looking on as Mum turned its pages.
Who are your biggest writing influences?
That’s trickier than it sounds, because it’s really so many things, some of which at first glance might appear to have little to do with writing. Take going for a simple walk. Shops, people, sounds, for sure, but the bit which generally stayed with me was the way a stray look, or a curse, might be processed. The loudness of one part of the journey, the relative quiet of another. That’s always been my basic understanding of tone, and texture, the rhythm of a sentence if you like, how it ebbs and flows according to some external need. And no matter how similar, no two journeys are identical, so language, including writing language, needs to be able to reflect that. When I was growing up, I would honestly just read anything I could get my hands on – old newspapers left lying around, football matchday programmes, Asterix comics, any novels in the library with a half decent cover – but the first book that really made me pay attention because it also made me lose track of time was ‘Midnight’s Children’. Rushdie and Marquez showed how the dance of language itself enabled more daring stories to emerge, and I loved that. I see that too in the bold literary modernism of Clarice Lispector and Sam Selvon. The pared back brutalism of Raymond Chandler and the outlandish, yet pinpoint, whimsy of James Joyce. The playfulness of Paul Beatty and Percival Everett. The bravura, and excess, of Elena Ferrante and Viet Thanh Nguyen. The forensic disassembling of Carmen Maria Machado and the exquisitely stylised form of Jhumpa Lahiri. And of course, underscoring it all, there are always Russians scribing fierce dissidence across frozen wastelands. Dostoevsky but also a contemporary writer like Victor Pelevin. Eimear McBride, for the way form always just about evades capture. Mohsin Hamid for the understated beauty of speculative fiction, Fuminori Nakamura for pushing Raskolnikov even further east. Saadat Hasan Manto for telling huge tales with few lines, and for making those lines funny even as they break your heart.
What book or books have shaped you? How so?
I’ve probably already answered this, but at the risk of sounding like a stuck record, here’s some of the books at least, starting with fiction: Midnight’s Children, Shame, East/West; The Lonely Londoners, Moses Ascending; My Brilliant Friend, Days of Abandonment; Unaccustomed Earth; Exit West; The Sympathizer, The Refugees; Crime and Punishment, The Double; The Life of Insects; The Gun, The Thief; The Wind Up Bird Chronicle; Slumberland; Erasure; Chourmo; The Lesser Bohemians; Invisible Man; 2666, The Savage Detectives; The Taiga Syndrome; Her Body and other parties; Transit, Outline, Kudos; The Football Factory. A Brief history of Seven Killings. There There; A Manual for Cleaning Women. The Hour of the Star.
Non-fiction: The Rest is Noise; Maximum City; Last Witnesses.
If there was one thing you could change in the world, what would it be?
Nothing wildly original, but still all too dismally relevant. I’d end global hunger. Given how many other seismic problems derive from hunger, including despoliation of the planet, any number of ethnic/tribal conflicts over resources, and the shoring up of historical inequalities, especially between the global North and the global South, this would appear to be in all our interests.
If you could write a letter to your younger self, what key message would you give him?
I’d tell him to simmer down, drink less Purdeys, and not give up so easily. Also, that it’s a long haul, a marathon not a sprint, which in any case, as a lifelong Hammer, he ought to already know. The rough with the smooth, and a seemingly endless wait for trophies. I’d tell him to trust his less giddy instincts and stay focused. Also, to keep a little something in reserve and perhaps not always wear his heart on his sleeve.
Part 2: About Your Book and the Publishing Process
What was your motivation for writing Another Kind of Concrete?
I think at root it’s that simple proposition that Ferrante sketches, about how ‘places of the imagination are visited in books’. I was always a terrible swimmer, but show me an alphabet soup and I’ll happily submerge myself for hours. That was something I had to remind myself of when diving in to start this story. I think in any case it had been gestating for years, perhaps far longer, but the catalyst was a difficult moment for me personally. I had just returned to London after taking my Dad’s ashes back to the old country and couldn’t shake the feeling that I owed him, and his playful spirit, a tale. At that point what sort of tale that might be was still unclear other than one which insisted on open heartedness and a certain resilience. But it’s a powerful motivational tool, the sense that there’s a spirit dance of uncertain origin waiting to remind you in the same breath of your stymied visions and your scribal duties.
What was your writing process during the creation of Another Kind of Concrete?
5am starts. Tea, some free weights to get the blood coursing, then straight into it. Writing until 11am, irrespective of the mood music. Break for food, a little bit of reading. Then the afternoon sifting, shaping, or on bad days rescuing some lines, or maybe just a standout phrase, from the morning’s wreckage. On days when the writing played second fiddle to other work, still 5am starts, but wrapped up by 7am. The shaping might have to wait till the evening. And of course the process gets easier once the music within makes itself known. Fluency in the veins and flesh on the bones, and a glorious feeling, what other writers have called ‘a state of grace’, if you will, takes over. That’s when the writing shapes your day, and the music, or art, or whatever sublime gift is tucked away in those words, guides you well past the tea, and any sense of neat demarcation. The real story has announced its arrival.
How much of you is represented by the main character, K?
Of course, people will say, ‘That’s you, right?’ And they’re right, at least to the extent that K., like all the other characters, sprang fully formed into the pages of his world from the febrile conditions of this author’s mind. But that’s the case for all characters in all serious literary fiction anyway, so the idea that this one simple letter has miraculously upended centuries of literary tradition and offered itself as sneaky shorthand for memoir, I think somewhat misses the mark. This is after all a work of fiction, and the challenge was always to recombine those intimate fragments rattling around in my head with the demands of a much larger story. If it has a certain amount of literary truth to it, then that story is well on the way to telling itself without the straitjacket of total recall. In a literal sense, of course K. is a shadowplay on the intimate geography of familiar spaces. He’s there because I put him there, or rather the story did. But he’s also, in this stripped down form, a homage to modernism in the raw – Kafka, anyone? – as much as any kind of personal shorthand. I understand him though, and I feel he’d forgive me for saying so.
Your book moves back and forth between time and place, from London to the Bengal, from the 40s to the 70s. Why did you choose this non-linear structure? Was it difficult to structure your novel in this way?
Once that state of grace kicked in, the story more or less wrote itself. As regards that question of non-linear time frames, it became clear to me in the writing that time itself had also become a protagonist, to be bent out of shape and back again according to the vicissitudes of playing with form as a means for also conveying symptoms of physical and mental disintegration. This after all is a sometimes hallucinatory world rising from the ashes of bombed out, exhausted imperial centre. I felt that modernist experiments with form were the best way to convey shifting senses of fragmentation, disintegration, dislocation and contingency in Concrete. In the end this is also a tale of refugees, an individual coming of age and the dawning of a new era. And in the words of Adam Mars Jones: ‘it’s an illusion that people living through a crisis are fully, continuously aware of what is happening around them.’
K, your main character, is a young British Asian boy straddling two identities. With a relative lack of ethnic minority representation in British literature, how important was it to write about the British Asian experience?
In fairness, given that K. is also a bibliophile and a fare dodger, he probably traverses considerably more than just the two cultures. As for the wider point, I’m not sure there’s any definitive set of social arrangements that could subsequently be called ‘the British Asian experience’. At any rate that wasn’t the impetus behind what eventually became ‘Another kind of Concrete’. It began life as a stray remark courtesy of a friend of mine, later used in mitigation against a cantankerous inner voice. That voice needed no authorisation, nor did it go looking for it. What it did do was suborn itself to the discipline of the writing, and after a while take great pleasure in narrating, in its temporary state of grace, a sort of recalibrated essence. And this became the story, that place of the imagination visited on the page, but rehearsing all those many places visited before, yet this time as art. All those fares dodged, books read, words imbibed, sights and sounds absorbed. The writing was its own authorisation, if you like. Simply put, it was its own tale, of indeterminate origin, which nonetheless reanimated the folkloric miscellany of place, partition and punk. It enjoys triptychs, the non-domesticated rhythm of a sentence and the possibility that those words can leap off the page and into something which might discernibly resemble ‘real life’. Its integrity, hopefully, lies in the form, its attention to quiet interiority as much as picaresque subversion. If there’s anything definitive about it, then that is a question of tone, atmosphere, the ‘literary truth’ which, as Ferrante explains, ‘is not the truth of the biographer or the reporter – it is entirely a matter of wording and directly proportional to the energy that one is able to impress upon the sentence.’ Needless to say, being a bibliophile or a fare dodger shouldn’t necessarily disqualify anyone from enjoying this tale. Being a pillar of ‘the community’ on the other hand, might do.
Your novel has a beautiful dedication to your mother - how important and influential has she been in the writing of your novel?
Thank you, it’s good to hear that. I’ll keep this fairly simple. Without Ma, there’d be no book, by which I mean there’d certainly be no author. Or at any rate, not this author. She gave me my love of books, words, reading, and so much more. The least I could do was offer a few words in return.
When writing Another Kind of Concrete, did you have a particular reader in mind?
No. I had no particular reader in mind, rather just the desire to be read. My hope was, still is, that the literary integrity of this story would draw people in, cajoling them on their readerly way without any kind of pandering. Formula, after all, is what you give to babies. By the time they’ve grown up a bit, the general idea is that they’ve been weaned off it. So really, there’s something here for anyone who likes to chew or bite, even if the texture isn’t immediately familiar.
What do you hope readers will take away from your novel?
For the serious reader, I’d hope there were considerable pleasures here. A time capsule offering stylised snapshots of people, vernacular cultures, and the histories those individuals have endured, but also made. The last analogue traces of an older London, yet one which never really died out, and which may still make some limited comeback post-Covid. A return to simpler pleasures, perhaps. Of course there’s also a phantom history of postwar London society too, all the way from Windrush to the Battle of Lewisham. A portal too through which they can travel, visa-free, into the turbulent heart of Empire and the febrile currents of anti-imperial revolution. And step right back into a present still bearing the scars of that history. Above all though, I’d hope they were drawn in by the form itself, left with a sense of both style and substance. And also, to never make trite assumptions again about the little lady in a sari who they might pass by every day without ever thinking that this is a figure of history, of humour, of extraordinary resilience.
What advice can you give to aspiring writers?
Advice? Not sure I’m qualified to give any beyond what ought to be obvious, but perhaps needs restating. Read as widely as you can, study the form, then read some more. And see how that form stays with you as you go through the rest of your day, week, month. At some point the excess will start spilling over onto the page, and that’s when the real fun begins. Probably best not to be a shy lover at this point. Let yourself stumble, flail around if you have to, and keep allowing for embarrassment. It won’t last, and before you know it, another country will have started to reveal itself without you ever needing to deal with UK Border Authority. Which has to be a good thing.
Any advice on how to overcome writer’s block?
Writer’s block? Keep reading, even if the words have dried up. Make notes on what you read, as well as random thought processes. You can always come back to these later, and crucially, they help divert the feeling that you’re staring into an entirely unproductive void. Do that thing that Kureishi advises. Do some living, get into some conceptual bother, allow for a certain mental promiscuity with the texts, ideas you’ve been carrying around in your head. Let Nietzsche talk to Colson Whitehead, Tagore to Tommy Orange. And fail, revel in it even, see it as the wellspring for its own art. ‘Fail better’ as Samuel Beckett suggests, because inherent to that is a parlay with the fear that left you clammed up in the first place. And if all that fails, tea, spinach and weights will at least unleash some vital endorphins. The words are never that far behind.
Are you writing anything new?
I’m currently working on a short story and essay collection attempting to piece together (or not, as the case may be) how we’ve ended up in this parlous state of affairs - culturally, socially, politically.
Part 3: Current affairs and writing
How is the current situation affecting what you are writing and reading?
I’m briefly scanning the news every day, though it’s almost uniformly grim, and steadily working my way through a large backlog of books which would otherwise forever be left on the backburner. So it’s quite a random list. Cultural criticism, memoirs, chronicles, books on economic theory, as well as fiction. Have particularly enjoyed the Robert Elms chronicle, ‘London Made Us’, the wonderful ‘Songs of Kabir’ (translated by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra) and the incredible oral history of Russian women during World War Two, ‘The Unwomanly Face of War’, by Svetlana Alexievich.
How are you coping with the lockdown?
I’m keeping things simple, as I’m a primary carer. Food, cooking, cleaning and then with whatever’s left over, some reading and the odd bit of writing. But I’m luckier than many, and I try to remind myself of that whenever my thoughts become overly negative.
Did COVID-19 affect your book release in any way? How so?
Postal and shipping delays have meant readers waiting longer to receive their books. My book launch was cancelled, and so far there hasn’t been any other publicity (this Q&A notwithstanding).
The flipside of course with a lockdown is that there is potentially a larger, captive audience actually reading now on a daily basis. If only more of them knew about my book!
What advice would you give to anyone who is starting his or her book in this period of quarantine?
Get on with it. Stay healthy, and safe, of course. But get on with it.
The COVID-19 pandemic has raised many questions about equality with the representation of the NHS and the demographic of those who are most affected and dying. Do you have any thoughts or comments on this?
The pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the true nature, and extent, of inequality, not just here, but worldwide. However, given that we’re talking about here, a few things need to be said. The dramatically higher rates of transmission and death within BAME communities gives the lie, once and for all, as with other crises, that ‘we’re all in it together’. We’re quite clearly not, and those infection and mortality rates are the grim evidence. Co-morbidities, the disproportionately high levels of diabetes, heart disease etc also found across BAME communities, whilst being one of the triggers for the higher mortality rate from COVID 19 within these demographics, are also a fairly accurate indication of where genuine structural disadvantage is experienced. As opposed to the manufactured grievances of right wing populism, which we used to know by another name. It’s telling that in the UK, as in the USA, the worst effects of the virus are being felt first in black and brown communities – the first to be sacked, the first to die. It’s shameful, and appalling, and there’s a lot more to be said, but not here.
As a journalist, what do you think of the reporting and coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic?
In this country, the mainstream media, with a few notable exceptions, has largely failed to ask the relevant questions, to speak truth to power, and to attempt to hold to account those responsible for the catastrophically botched government response to the pandemic. Again this is a pattern which has intensified of late, but been many years in the gestation. Think back to the tabloid coverage of the New Cross Fire, or Broadwater Farm, or Hillsborough, or the Iraq War, and there’s a common thread of wilfully ignoring, or misrepresenting the facts on the ground, and searching for strawmen arguments instead. And over time, sufficient swathes of the population have grown inured to the lies. It’s what led to the Brexit vote and to Boris, and it’s leading now to a monumental coverup about the true co-ordinates of the ongoing catastrophe. A far cry from the investigative elan which first drew me to journalism, though it’s also worth reminding oneself that Benito Mussolini once started out as a crusading journalist before he became something else entirely.
Part 4: Just for fun
How would your students describe you?
I’ve long since left the Academy, but hopefully my students would remember me as an engaging and illuminating presence beneath the grumpy exterior.
What’s your most embarrassing memory?
Blimey. Too many to mention but, seeing as though we’re getting into full ‘confessional’ territory, here’s one. Being caught short on the way to a first date many years back as a young man (dodgy mushrooms the night before), and reluctantly having to clamber into a nearby skip to do the needful. And then having to go on to the date itself, with the lack of small talk the least of my worries.
What’s a fact about you that you think people would be surprised to learn?
That I once ended up having dinner with Roy Ayers, in an Indian restaurant in south London, having originally only gone out to pick up a pint of milk. During a fresh round of naan bread and dhal, he also put me on the guest list for that evening’s nearby gig, and opened his set with ‘Mystic Voyage’, as he’d been threatening to over the kulfi.
What is the strangest/most memorable thing one of your students has written/said while in class?
I couldn’t possibly say. Whatever the academic equivalent of ‘the right to remain silent’, or ‘doctor/patient confidentiality’ is.
Do you prefer long or short fiction?
Long or short? Whatever the mood music dictates. There’s pleasures to be had from either. Disciplines too. Precision, tone, plausibility. But when it’s good, it’s all good really.
Many people are turning to books during lockdown - what are you reading at the moment?
I think I’ve already answered this one, so here’s a few more recently culled from that backlog. Rachel Cusk – ‘Transit’; ‘Outline’; Houria Bouteldja – ‘Whites, Jews and Us’; Angela Carter – ‘Expletives Deleted’.
What book(s) would you recommend to others?
Tommy Orange – ‘There There’; Clarice Lispector – ‘Hour of the Star’; Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson – Mo’ Meta Blues; Sonia Faleiro – ‘Beautiful Thing’.
Almost anything by A. A. Gill.
And of course, ‘Another Kind of Concrete’, a perfectly acceptable curfew read, in my opinion anyway.