Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Black Album - Hanif Kureishi

Hanif Kureishi's novel The Black Album (1995) is, among other things, a great snapshot of late 1980s London. Its main protagonist, Shahid, is torn between the demands of militant Islamists at the time of the Rushdie Affair (1989) and the sexual and chemical possibilities of the secular world embodied in the rave scene.

There are some good descriptions of clubbing at the time with its mixture of love, ecstasy, crime, danger, joy and vacancy. Shahid's first E experience starts with a trip to a club in south London:

'The lip of the bridge was slipping them into the mouth of south London... They turned into a narrow cul-de-sac designed for murders, past workshops, lock-up garages and miserable-looking trees. They took a sharp corner into a lane. The building at the end, subtly vibrating, was the White Room. It was a silver warehouse.

In front of it was a forecourt along the centre of which had been laid a pathway of rolled barbed wire. The whole area was circled by a high fence and was washed in harsh yellow light, making it resemble a prison yard. Three pill-box entrances were manned by sentries mumbling into radios. Crowds surrounded them in the freezing night. Some kids, not admitted, clung shivering to the fence. Others attempted to climb it like refugees, yelling through at the building, before being yanked back to earth and pushed away.

Deedee gave her name and they were admitted. Filmed by security cameras, they swung through the floodlit walkway while being watched enviously. It was like being pop stars at a première. They entered a dark bar area of tables and chairs, where people sat drinking water and juice beneath billowing parachutes. Alcohol was not for sale.

‘This way.’

He followed her through maze-like tunnels of undulating canvas. Eventually they were released into a cavernous room containing at least five hundred people, where shifting coloured slides were projected on to the walls. There was a relentless whirlwind of interplanetary noises. Jets of kaleidoscopic light sprayed the air. Many of the men were bare-chested and wore only thongs; some of the women were topless or in just shorts and net tops. One woman was naked except for high heels and a large plastic penis strapped to her thighs with which she duetted. Others were garbed in rubber, or masks, or were dressed as babies. The dancing was frenzied and individual. People blew whistles, others screamed with pleasure…

With his eyes half closed, he peered into the incandescent ultra-violet haze. He noticed, through the golden mist, that no one appeared to have any great interest in anyone else, though people would fall into staring at one another. Then he was doing it; everyone was looking so beautiful. But before he could think why this might be, or why he was enjoying himself so much, an undertow of satisfaction rippled through him, as if some creature were sighing in his body. He felt he was going to be lifted off his feet. The feeling left him and he felt deserted. He wanted it back. It came and came. In a pounding trance he started writhing joyously, feeling he was part of a waving sea. He could have danced for ever, but not long after she said, ‘We should go.’
Electric waves of light flickered in the air. Fronds of fingers with flames spurting from them waved at the DJs, flown in from New York, sitting in their glass booths.

Afterward they head further south to a party in a squatted mansion:

They arrived at the ominous iron fence of a white mansion, the sort of place an English Gatsby would have chosen, he imagined. Trucks were parked in the driveway. Big men stood in the gloom. They searched Shahid, putting their hands down his trousers; he had to remove his socks and shake them while standing on one foot in the mud.

They went into the marble hall and found themselves staring up at a grand staircase. Then they passed the efficient cloakroom, the bar and the stuffed polar bear on its hind legs with a light in its mouth, traversed the deep white carpet, through doors, wide passageways and a conservatory where trees touched the roof, until they came to a Jacuzzi in which everyone was naked. Beyond was an illuminated indoor swimming pool. On its shadowy surface floated dozens of lemon and lime-coloured balloons. Beyond that the garden stretched away into the distance, lit by gassy blue flames. It was the perfect venue for a house party…

The house had been squatted the previous evening after being claimed by the drummer of the Pennies from Hell, a window cleaner who’d spotted it on his rounds. Tonight it was overrun by hordes of boys and girls from south London. They had pageboy haircuts, skateboard tops, baseball caps, hoods, bright ponchos and twenty-inch denim flares. Deedee said that most had probably never been inside such a house before, unless they were delivering the groceries. Now they were having the time of their lives. By the end of the weekend the house would be ashes. ‘The kids too,’ she added.

Deedee and Shahid started up the stairs, but dozens of people were coming down. Others danced where they stood with their hands in the air, crying, ‘Everybody’s free to feel good, everybody’s freee . . . ‘ Some just sat nodding their heads with their eyes closed. Then Shahid lost Deedee. On the landing a runty little wiry kid had taken up a pitch and was jigging about and shouting, ‘Want anything, want anything . . . Eeeee . . . E for the people! Up the working class!’

…Upstairs in the chillin’ space no one was vertical; kids were lying on the floor not moving — except to kiss or stroke one another — as if they’d been massacred. Shahid needed to join them, and he lay down, slotting into a space between the bodies. The moment he shut his eyes his mind, which in the past he had visualized as ancient and layered like a section through the earth’s crust, became a blazing oblong of light in which coloured shapes were dancing… He was high and accelerating — liquid, as if the furnace in his stomach was simmering his bone and muscle into lava. But what the girl said grated. Somewhere in his mind there lurked desolation: the things he normally liked had been drained off and not only could he not locate them, he couldn’t remember what they were. He needed to find a pen and list the reasons for living. But what on the list could be comparable to the feeling of this drug? He had been let into a dangerous secret; once it had been revealed, much of life, regarded from this high vantage point, could seem quite small.

He and the girl next to him were kissing, drawing on one another’s tongues until they felt their heads would fuse. Someone was lying down beside him and tugging at his shoulder. Shahid ignored them. The room had become one nameless body, one mouth and kiss.

…They clambered into the silence of the taxi and discovered their ears were yearning for music much as one’s stomach complains for food, but there was none available.

The song mentioned is Everybody's Free by Rozalla. I remember dancing to this at a party in Newcastle in 1991 to celebrate the release of a prisoner who had been jailed for refusing to pay the poll tax. On the chorus, everybody sang her name, 'Beccy Palmer's Free'.

Shahid's experiences open up a vision of the city as a giant desiring machine:

'This journey, as he headed home, involved a different disturbance. It had been the best night. Now he wanted to dream it again, luxuriating in what he remembered… he could see that today, although the secrets of desire were veiled, sexual tension was everywhere. He couldn’t doubt its circulating tangibility. Beneath the banality and repetition of this ordinary day there ran, like the warm inhabited tube tunnels under the city, flirtation, passion and the deepest curiosities. People dressed, gestured, moved, to display themselves and attract. They were sizing each other up, fantasizing, wanting to desire and be adored.

Skirts, shoes, haircuts, looks, gestures: enticement and fascination were everywhere, while the world went to work. And such allure wasn’t a preliminary to real sex, it was sex itself. Out there it was not innocent. People yearned for romance, desire, feeling. They wanted to be kissed, stroked, sucked, held and penetrated more than they could say. The platform of Baker Street Station was Arcadia itself. He had had no idea that the extraordinary would be alive and well on the Jubilee Line. Today he could see and feel the lure'.
The novel takes its title from Prince's famous lost album, available only on bootleg after its release was cancelled in 1987 (in the novel Shahid is a big Prince fan).

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