Ep 303 Meet Sarfraz Manzoor, author of ‘Greetings From Bury Park’, now a hit movie.

In Episode 303 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Discover top tips for surviving a structural edit and meet Sarfraz Manzoor, author of Greetings from Bury Park, now a hit movie. 13 Australian authors share their creative rituals. Plus, we have three copies of Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister by Jung Chang to give away.

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Show Notes

3 tips for surviving a structural edit
How to edit your own writing: 5 top tips from a writer
How to edit your own writing: 5 top tips from an editor
13 Australian authors share their creative rituals

Writers in Residence

Sarfraz Manzoor

Sarfraz Manzoor is a British journalist, documentary maker, and broadcaster. He is a regular contributor to The Guardian, presenter of documentaries on BBC Radio 4, and a cultural commentator who appears on programmes such as Newsnight Review and Saturday Review. His first book, Greetings from Bury Park was published in 2007 and is the inspiration for the hit movie Blinded by the Light. He lives in London.

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

Thank you so much for joining us today, Sarfraz.

Sarfraz

It’s great to talk to you.

Valerie

Now a couple of months ago, I stumbled on this trailer on YouTube, Blinded by the Light. I had no idea what it was about but I played it. And by the end of the trailer, I found myself in tears. And I’m like, why?

And so I found myself Googling and discovered that we’ve basically just been living in parallel universes. You were three years old when you moved from Pakistan to Luton. I was four years old when I moved from Singapore to Sydney. The date you arrived in England for the first time to start your new life is my birthday. At the age of 16, you discovered Springsteen because your friend Amolak introduced you to it. That’s when I discovered Springsteen, because my friend Hsu-Ming, introduced me to him. Springsteen’s words inspired you to love words. You wrote poems as a teenager. You eventually became a writer. I knew that I wanted to become a writer.

Now this is really stretching things, but I’ll go there. The first movies you saw at the cinema were Back to the Future, which I was obsessed with, Rocky, and I named my cat Rocky, Rambo, I named my dog Rambo. You studied economics. I studied economics. You did post graduate in documentary production. I did post graduate in journalism.

So I thought, oh my goodness, I have to talk to this guy.

Sarfraz

Do you know what I’m feeling that, I just feel like we’ve got nothing in common.

Valerie

Nothing at all! So, I have yet to see the movie because the screening is not until next week. It’s going to be released in late August in Australia. The first thing I did was read your book, which I had not read yet. So the movie is based on your memoir which you wrote in 2007, Greetings from Bury Park. And now the movie, Blinded by the Light is being released. And you also co-wrote the screenplay for the movie. So for those who have yet to discover these gems yet, what is the book about? And what part of your life does the movie then cover?

Sarfraz

So basically, thank you for all that. And it is interesting when you do something which is very personal and it’s coming from a very personal place, and then you find people who find their own story in it. You know? And so that’s kind of… I mean, obviously there seems to be a lot of real interesting parallels.

So the story, Greetings from Bury Park, well, basically I grew up in, as you mentioned, in a town called Luton which is 30 miles north of London. I came to Britain when I was three years old. My dad was a factory worker. He worked in a car factory. My mum was a seamstress and just made dresses late into the night at home.

We came from a very working class family, and the expectations for someone like me were pretty minimal. My dad was first generation immigrant, and he wanted us to do something that was going to be better than what he was doing. But in his mind, that would have meant a job which has some status, something that he could feel proud of. Certainly nothing that was going to be creative, nothing that was… There was nobody in the world that I was around who worked in the world of ideas or anything to do with creativity.

So my world was fairly limited in that sense. And it was also very limited in the idea about things like love and marriage. So I was expected to have an arranged marriage. And so I never really wanted any of these things. And even as I was a kid I was just like, there’s got to be more to life than this. But I didn’t really understand how that could happen.

And then when I was 16 I started college, in the autumn of 1987. And a guy called Rupes Amolak introduced me to some music and he said, this is going to change your life. And I said, what is it? And he said, Bruce Springsteen. I said, Bruce Springsteen? Isn’t he that guy who makes millions out of pretending to be working class? And Amolak said, you’re an idiot. Listen to this music.

And I listened to it and it really did make me rethink my life. And so when I wrote Greetings from Bury Park, it was partly a kind of salute of things to Bruce Springsteen for having helped inspire me and to change my life. And it was also actually a tribute to my dad and my mum and that generation of fathers and mothers who sacrificed so much so that people like me could work and do the things we wanted to do.

So the book came out in 2007. And then I sort of had an idea they could make a film. But I’m sure you know this, the number of people who have an idea of a film being made and the number who actually get it made, that’s not a great hit rate. So I didn’t do that much with it.

But I did think to myself, if anyone can make this film happen, it’s going to be Gurinder Chadha. Because she’d made Bend it Like Beckham. And that was a story that was also about a kid from a South Asian background who was into something that was unlikely. And she was a friend of mine so I introduced her to the book. And she loved the book. So we sort of started on that journey.

Now, Blinded by the Light, the film, when I was trying to think about how to make the story happen in terms of a film, I knew that the book wasn’t going to be the film. Because the book is not linear, it covers a lot of time, it’s not really… It doesn’t feel like it’s going to be a film.

And so it was a while before I realised that the story I really thought would be the best one to tell in a film would be the rite of passage story. It would be the story about what it’s like to go from a moment when the world is the same as it was, and then it changes.

So Blinded by the Light starts with my character just about to start college in the autumn of 1987. And so he has this world that he exists in which is the world I talked about of expectations and limited expectations. And then he discovers Springsteen, and then it carries on right up to the moment that he’s about to go to university in Manchester.

So those years between 16 to 18, when the child becomes the adult, when the boy becomes the man, and you have to learn to step away from the shadow of your dad, that’s the nub of the story that we’re covering in Blinded by the Light.

Valerie

Now I just want to make it clear to listeners that even though it’s called Blinded by the Light, and even though your book is called Greetings from Bury Park, which for listeners who don’t know one of Springsteen’s first albums was Greetings from Asbury Park, the book and the movie they’re not about Springsteen. It really is a coming of age story. There’s themes of identity and belonging and racism and where is home. And it’s an incredible read and I just can’t wait to see the movie.

But having said all of that, I want to just dig a little bit deeper that you just alluded to and you said in the book, “Bruce Springsteen changed my life because in his music I saw the promise of hope and escape and self-improvement.”

I get it, because I get Springsteen. But for those people who have yet to discover him, what do you mean? How did that happen?

Sarfraz

Okay. So basically, when I got into Springsteen, before I got into him, I was a top 40 kind of kid. So the music I listened to, I wasn’t into the cool music. I was into what was in the charts. So 1987, we’re talking about Madonna, Who’s That Girl, round about that sort of time. Talking about Michael Jackson. I was really into power ballads. You know, the Bonnie Tylers and the Foreigners and the Heart and all that kind of stuff. And The Pet Shop Boys and all that kind of music.

And I loved it. But it wasn’t really about anything. It was basically just simple escapism. And when it talked about love it was in a completely over the top ridiculous way. And most of the time it was just about having fun.

And then I listened to Springsteen. And Springsteen is not singing about these things at all. He’s singing about what it’s like to live in a town that you don’t want to live in. In Thunder Road, the last line of Thunder Road is “it’s a town full of losers and I’m pulling out of here to win.” And I remember listening to that thinking I had no idea that Bruce Springsteen had been to Luton. You know, it sounded like he absolutely, it sounded like he knew my hometown.

In Born to Run he says, “I want to know if love is wild. I want to know if love is real.” Now as someone who was looking at the idea of an arranged marriage as my future, I also wanted to know if love was real. You know? And when he sings in Independence Day about his dad, and he says, “there’s different people coming around and they see things in different ways. And soon everything you’ve known will be swept away.” That’s what I wanted to tell my dad! To say, look, it’s not that I’m trying to destroy everything about you. It’s just the times are changing and I see the world in a different way.

And so what I found with Springsteen was that rather than trying to escape from the real world, he was actually talking about the real world. He was talking about the life that I knew. And he was talking about what it was like to do jobs you didn’t want to do, or to try and find love in a difficult time. He was talking about friendship. And so in a way, he was actually describing the world as it was. And there was a great line I read, which was that most music was about Saturday night, but Bruce Springsteen sang about Monday to Friday. And that’s why I connected with him.

Valerie

Absolutely. But you obviously connected with him to the next level. I did not reach your super fan status, largely also because of geography. It’s a lot easier to get around when you live in the northern hemisphere than when you live in Sydney, Australia, to go to concerts.

But you have been to, I read somewhere, over 150 concerts in literally cities all around the world. Is that right?

Sarfraz

Yeah. Yeah, it is. And I know that sounds quite a lot. And it is. But think about it, it is over 30 years. So if you think about over 30 years, it’s only five a year. So it evens out.

But yeah, between 1992 and 2005, I went to see every single Springsteen show in the UK. So when he would do a tour, I would just travel around the country seeing every night. And then, you’re right, if you live in Britain, Europe is not too far away in terms of mainland Europe. And so I saw him in Spain and Italy and France. And I went to see him in Sweden. I went to see him in New York. And I went to see him in Pittsburgh and Washington.

So yeah, there was quite a lot of… But the thing is, and you’ll probably know this, the thing is you see just before the lights go up and Springsteen’s about to go on stage, you know that the next three hours are going to be absolutely amazing. And you’re going to have this extraordinary time and you’re going to hear amazing songs. And you’re going to get this sense of connection and community in this concert.

So if you have this guaranteed pleasure that is possible, why wouldn’t you do it?

Valerie

Now I understand that you kind of ended up having a community because there are other super fans like you who would also travel to every single concert. And basically, you just all get to know each other and hang out in the first few rows. Is that right?

Sarfraz

Yeah, exactly. Because basically what would happen, I mean this was around 2002/2003 we travelled around, went to Barcelona, went to Bologna, went to Paris. And yeah, it was hilarious. We’d basically travel as a contingent. And then it would be the same people in the front row regardless of which city it was. I have to say, I think Springsteen probably must have got a bit fed up, because he’d go to these different cities all around the world and it would be the same losers in the front row looking at him.

But yeah, no we did. But then you do get a real sense of connection and comradery with all these people, you know. There’s all these rituals in terms of making sure that people will hold the line for you. But also, in the days before Ticketmaster and all this online ticketing, I used to sleep out overnight for tickets. So with Wembley Arena, when the Human Touch tour came on, tickets came on sale for that in 1992, tickets went on sale I remember at Thursday 12:00 outside Wembley Arena. Now we were there on Tuesday morning.

Valerie

Dedicated. Dedicated.

Sarfraz

Sleeping on cardboard boxes outside for two nights.

Valerie

All right. So you then write Greetings from Bury Park. And do you know at what point Bruce read it? Or do you know if Bruce read it?

Sarfraz

I wrote it and I had an idea about wanting to send it to him. But I just couldn’t think about what the covering letter would say. I just couldn’t work out what to say in it, so I never did.

And then three years later in 2010, Springsteen came to London for a show, it was a premiere of the documentary The Promise, which was about the making of Darkness on the Edge of Town. And he had a screening at the British Film Institute in London on the South Bank. And I got a ticket to go. And it was a bit of an exclusive thing because he was going to be having a drinks reception in the foyer of the BFI.

So I went along with Gurinder Chadha, the director, and I brought my book with me. So I thought, you know, if I was to get a chance to see him I could hand him the book. And by this point, because I had seen him so many times and there had been a number of times where I would just stand outside a venue for a couple of hours waiting for him to come out, and yes there were some times when I would stand outside hotels for a couple of hours waiting for him to come into hotels. So he kind of knew me, and he was familiar with my face. And in concert, during the concert, when he’d see me he would always point to me or smile at me and stuff. So there was a kind of connection and familiarity. Nothing much more than that.

And so when in 2010 he came, I had my book and then he walked in and there’s all these flashbulbs going and everything and my heart’s pumping and I’m just hoping I can catch his eye or wave at him to kind of usher him towards me or something. And then he’s there, and then he sees me. And he notices and recognises me and stops what he’s doing and walks right up to me and then just says, hey, I just got to tell you, I really loved your book.

Valerie

Oh wow. What’d you do?

Sarfraz

I’m like… You read it? He says, yeah, yeah, I’ve read it. I’ve read it. It’s a really beautiful thing. I said, how do you know about the book?  He says, oh, people send me copies. They send me copies all the time. It’s a really, really lovely thing.

And Gurinder was there and she was like, okay, we’ve really got to grab this moment. She’s like, okay, we’re going to make a film of this book. And then she said to Bruce, and I made Bend it Like Beckham, and I know your kids like that, and we’re going to make a film of this book. And he’s like, okay, okay. Well, talk to Jon Landau – that’s his manager.

And that was the trigger point that made us think, you know, let’s try and make this happen. Let’s see if we can maybe actually use the fact that Springsteen is a fan of the book and maybe try and then work on a script that he might like which would then mean that he would give us the approval for his music.

Valerie

So at this point you had not started writing a screenplay yet? That was the jumping off point?

Sarfraz

No.

Valerie

Wow. Okay. So let’s talk about that. So now you decide you’re going to write a screenplay, or cowrite the screenplay with Gurinder. And as you say, your book is structured in such a way that it’s not linear. It kind of jumps around timelines. And that’s not the way a movie would typically roll out. What did you have to do really on a practical level? Did you kind of have to think, okay, I’m going to pretend the book didn’t exist and I’m going to start from scratch? Or did you rearrange the book and then turn it into dialogue? What happened on a practical writing level?

Sarfraz

That’s a really good question. So basically what I did was I read books on how to do this! So I read Syd Field, called Screenplay. I read Blake Snyder, called Save The Cat. And I started just understanding the three act structure. And I just literally learnt the architecture of what a three act structure was, what is a midpoint, what is an inciting incident? Because I didn’t really know that language.

And then I remember doing this, I got myself a legal pad, a yellow legal pad, and I wrote down opening, inciting incident, end of act one, end of act two, midpoints. And then I said, okay, so based on the story of my life, what fits these things?

So the inciting incident has to be discovering Springsteen. Okay. So we know that. The end of act one, that’s probably listening to Bruce. But if it’s listening to Bruce, then the end of act two has to be the exact opposite thing. So it’s got to be the moment which is the exact opposite of jubilation. And I thought, okay, well, I remember there was a moment which felt like that. And so I put that in.

And I said, well the end has obviously got to be departure and leaving. And so then I started then filling out that structure.

And the other thing I did was I went through the book and I actually did a lot of just brainstorming scenes and dialogue. Because the thing about a film that’s different from a book is you can’t just say you’re feeling the whole time. You’ve got to show it. So I just went through and I thought, okay, so what are the key details? What are the scenes? What are the things that my dad used to say? What are the moments? What are the emotions that I wanted to try and get in?

And I just literally listed and wrote them all down. And then the idea was to try and craft a story which would be kind of fictionalised, but which all of that essential truth, whether it was things that my dad said, or single moments, I would then crowbar them in and I would pack them in so that the film would have that in there an authenticity. Does that make sense?

Valerie

Yeah, yeah. That makes sense. And did you do it… Because you cowrote it, how did that work? Did you sit next to each other piano style? Or did you write bits, or how did that work?

Sarfraz

No. Basically what happened was that for the first four or five years I actually just wrote it on my own. And I would have meetings with Gurinder and her partner Paul every four or five months where I would send… I spent about two years just doing a scene outline, just to get the structure… I kind of just thought, you know what, if I don’t know what the structure is, I ain’t gonna get anywhere.

So I really, really worked hard on the structure to make sure that I knew exactly what was happening in each scene and what was happening. So that before I ended up writing anything, I had the structure nailed.

And so I would work on it for three, four, five months. I’d then send it to them, they’d give me feedback, and then they’d say, okay, you need to dig deeper here, you need to get a bit more emotional here. Think about this bit a bit more. So they’d give me notes on those sorts of things. And then I’d go off and do it again.

So that was pretty much how it worked. But then towards the end, Gurinder, because she was the director of it, she ended up doing a little bit more work in terms of making a director’s pass and working on… So she had some clear ideas about…

Like I’ll give an example, for example. That was something which was the film starts in 1987. And this is actually quite interesting. So basically the film starts in 1987, and it starts with my character. But one of the things that we were concerned about was we wanted people who from a South Asian background to see it. We didn’t want it to feel like it was a niche film.

And so we had this idea, well actually Gurinder had this idea, that the opening scene could be something which has got my character and his English friend together as boys when they were ten years old. And they’re chatting away and they’re talking about what’s going to happen to them when they’re older. And then it fast forwards to 1987.

So the very first thing you see is two boys, one of them white, one of them Asian, sitting together. Because that feels to an audience, oh yeah, I can go on a journey with these two boys, even though 99% of the film is actually about the Asian boy. It just feels like a way to make it feel more open. And so that was something which I would never have thought of, but as a filmmaker, Gurinder had that idea.

So it was more of a collaboration later. But for me it was really important that we try to make it as authentic as we could. So for example, if you’ve read the book you’ll know that my dad worked in a car factory. In the film he works in a car factory. If you read the book, you know that I wrote poems. My actual poems are in the film. I worked in a sandwich factory. The character in the film works in a sandwich factory. So all that detail was put in. But then we did what we needed to do to get it to work for the grammar of what a feature film is.

Valerie

And then at some point you needed to involve Bruce Springsteen, not least because you would have to get permission to use the songs which are such a big part of the film. Can you talk about that?

Sarfraz

Yeah. Well basically what was quite… It was a really hard thing actually, because it’s like imagine you’re trying to do something and it literally, it literally lives and dies on the judgement of one person.

Valerie

Yeah.

Sarfraz

You know? So I always used to say, you know what? Say somebody came to me with 10 million pounds, we could have the budget to make the film, but we still couldn’t make the film without Bruce. Say a big distributor said, we’ll distribute this to every cinema in the country. Great. If we don’t have the music… It all came down to Bruce Springsteen. Because if we couldn’t his music, there is no film.

And he is very, very careful about who he gives us music to. And he just doesn’t really do it. It’s very, very rare that you will see a film which has got a Springsteen song in it, because he doesn’t give it away. And if you do, it might be just one song because he knows the filmmaker or something.

So Gurinder always said to me, you’ve got to write a script that Bruce Springsteen will like. And that’s a heck of a pressure.

So we worked on it for a while. And then in 2017, I get this call from her saying, okay, so we feel like it’s now ready to send to Bruce. And so we’re going to send it to Springsteen. I said, okay. And she said, but we feel like you should write a letter to him explaining why you want his music. Could you do that tonight?

So I was like, okay, how long have I got? And she goes, like, two hours. Can you do two hours?

And so the kids are asleep, I’ve got these two young children, they’re in bed. My wife is sort of pottering around. And I open the laptop and I literally have to write this letter which starts “Dear Bruce”. And to try to write something, which isn’t going to be a 5000 words or anything, it has to be fairly tight, it has to be fairly concise, but it basically has to say, you know, can we have you…

And I thought to myself it sounds like a cliché but this letter is a life changing moment. This is the thing which if this happens my life will change. And if it doesn’t happen, things will be very different.

And so I wrote the letter. And then for the next two or three weeks there was this agonising silence. Absolutely agonising silence. And then in early June I was in Hay on Wye for the book festival. It’s a really massive book festival on the borders of England and Wales and I go there every year.

And so I was there in a little cottage with my wife and kids. And it was a couple of days before my birthday. And I get this phone call from Gurinder and I answer it and she’s singing Happy Birthday to me. And I said, what? And she goes, I’ve got you a birthday present. Bruce has just come back to us and he said, I’m all good with it.

I said, what does that mean? She goes, that’s it. We’ve got him on board. That means we can have the film. The film can go ahead.

So I was just jumping around. I mean, pure exuberation and exhilaration. But the thing is, I want to run upstairs and tell Bridget, my wife, because I’m like, oh my god! This is a journey I’ve gone on with her. But the problem is that I’d had a massive argument with her that night about something really minor. Like I think I’d forgotten to take the bins out and it was the day of bin collection the next day or something. Something minor which had really upset her. So she’d gone to bed in a bit of a huff. And I was like, I wonder if I can wake her up and say, can we just park this petty argument because I’ve got some really big news for you.

And I didn’t feel like… She’s not someone that lets it lie for a while. So I thought, no, I think maybe I won’t. So I had to basically celebrate this news on my own jumping around in this cottage in the middle of the border between England and Wales, knowing this exciting news but not being able to share it with anyone.

Valerie

Oh my god! But how exciting. What a moment. I mean, what a moment.

So in the book, in the movie, even though there’s lots of Springsteen in it, it is about family and race and a number of other themes. One of the interesting things that you’ve already touched on is that you had a lot of family pressure to have an arranged marriage. I mean, we’re talking and it’s a bit hard to believe that a Brit like you who’s lived there since you were three years old, certainly way more years than you lived in Pakistan, could be expected to have an arranged marriage. Or that kind of pressure.

And in a sense, Bruce Springsteen’s songs kind of encouraged you to break away from that expectation of an arranged marriage, or at least the pressure that you had to marry a Pakistani woman. Is that right? Because your wife, you’ve mentioned your wife, is Caucasian and non-Muslim. You’re Muslim.

Sarfraz

Yeah.

Valerie

And so that didn’t happen.

Sarfraz

Yeah. I mean it’s true that you think, gosh, how can this stuff still be going on, which is basically what you’re saying. And the reason is because it’s not 2019 in some of these communities. It’s still kind of the mid-70s or the mid-80s.

Because there is a bit of a bubble world. When I go visit my family, you wouldn’t necessarily… The attitudes and the thoughts they’ve got are not that much connected to what’s going on in the rest of the country. So no, I really was expected to have an arranged marriage. And my brother did and my older sister did. So it’s not like… And in fact, the gang I grew up in at college, most people did out of the world I come from.

And I always say that Springsteen in a way sort of ruined my love life for me. Because he kind of sang songs about love in such a way that made me think, I think I’d like a bit of this. And it wasn’t really what was expected.

So in Born to Run, he has this line where he says, he talks about talking to a girl called Wendy, he says, “we’ll live with the sadness and I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul.”

I remember thinking, can you imagine meeting someone and saying that I love with you all the madness in my soul? And I just didn’t think I was going to get this from an arranged marriage. And so you have these kind of expectations of what love can be like. And it doesn’t feel like that’s what’s going to happen in the world that you’re linked to.

It’s funny, actually, now that you mention it, because I’ve just realised in terms of where or who I’m talking to, and where I’m talking to you from, I used to keep – I still keep a diary – but I used to keep a diary when I was a kid. And I’ve got this entry from about 1986 where I’m even then – because I knew that this was coming around the corner for me. This idea of an arranged marriage. And I remember, I used to watch Neighbours at the time. And I don’t know how old you are, but do you remember Scott and Charlene?

Valerie

Yeah, of course!

Sarfraz

Okay. So I remember the wedding of Scott and Charlene. Jason Donovan and Kylie. And I have this diary entry which is, why can’t love be as simple as it seems to be for Scott and Charlene? Why can’t I have the love that them two have? Why can’t I have that?

And then it’s like because I was 15, I was watching these people getting married on TV and I was like, why does it have to be so complicated? Why do I have to marry some girl from a village that I’ve never met? Why can’t I have what Jason and Kylie have?

And it wasn’t done in a kind of jokey way. It was a really heartfelt plea to myself in my diary! So that was kind of what I was expecting, yeah.

Valerie

And I understand that your mother would try and arrange girls that she knew or who were daughters of people she knew to talk to you on the phone to see if there was potentially something there. And you would ask them, do you like Bruce Springsteen? Did you really?

Sarfraz

Yeah. I did. I mean, to be honest, what it was, actually my relationship history wasn’t that great. So I was like, do you know, maybe I’m being a bit naive. Maybe I’m being a bit silly to close the door on something. But you want to have some kind of connection with someone, don’t you?

So she would literally, I would come home, and there would be phone numbers on my bedside table. And there would be very little information about who these numbers were from. And they would be very eerie conversations, because she’d never have talked to the girl herself. She’d only have talked to the parents.

And it was always, something was always lost in translation. So I remember there was one time, she said this is a woman and the girl is a dentist. And she studied at Cambridge. And I was thinking, well, Cambridge University is a pretty fine place of learning. Dentistry, that’s a good job. You’re never going to be out of work as a dentist. So maybe it’s worth giving her a call. So I did actually ring her. But it turned out that she was a dietician living in Cambridge. And so it wasn’t quite the same thing.

Valerie

I remember reading in your book there was one who your mother wrote down was a biochemist but actually she worked at Boots.

Sarfraz

Yeah. I think she worked in a pharmacy. And the thing is, it is funny. But it’s also kind of, you know, it’s about parents thinking that they’re trying to do the best for you as well. So my mum genuinely…

I tell you the saddest look my mum ever had was when I would come home from my life in London and she would say, so who did your laundry for you? And I’d say, I did it. And she goes, who made your dinner? I made it. And she just looked at me as if I had lost in the lottery of life. That I had nobody to care for me, nobody was going to look after me. Nobody… And I was like, I’m actually kind of okay. I don’t need… But her thing was, is he going to be okay? Is he going to be looked after? And so it came from a good place. But it just didn’t, it just wasn’t working in the language or the world that I was actually in.

Valerie

So then you meet your wife, Bridget. And you go on a date. Is that because she liked Bruce Springsteen?

Sarfraz

Sadly not. No. I have to say that that’s outside the remit of the book. Because when I wrote the book, I’m happy to talk about it, but I wrote the book and it got published in 2007. And what happened was that the following, I launched it at the Hay Book Festival, and then the following year I returned and I was coming back from the Hay Festival on my way to London and I sat opposite this gorgeous woman with green eyes and blonde hair and she was reading a book. And I started… Ended up having a conversation with her.

And I enjoyed the conversation so much that I really wanted to see her again. And I said, look, I don’t want to be a creep. I don’t want to be some sort of person who’s haranguing you and you’re not interested. I didn’t use those exact words, but that was the implication. So what I’m going to do is I’m not going to take your number. I’ll give you my number. And so if you want to call me, you can. But I’ve got no way of contacting you.

And then about two days later she contacted me.

Valerie

Good move.

Sarfraz

It was born from desperation. And so then she contacted me about two days later and then we went on a date. And then we ended up getting married.

So she wasn’t a Springsteen fan, but she is now. She doesn’t get him obviously like I do. But she actually says to me sometimes that she sort of reminds me that when we were – I think the word is ‘courting’ – when we were courting in the early days, I used to play her Springsteen, which is kind of fair enough. But I would always do a very lengthy introduction before the song to give her a bit of context as to what the song was about, where Bruce was in his life, what was going on in the career. And just to look out for some key phrases.

And she actually said to me, which was quite sweet, she said, I miss those days when you’d give me those little mini-symposiums about Bruce Springsteen’s songs.

Valerie

So this isn’t in the book, either. I read this in a piece you actually wrote in The Guardian. And I was a bit sad, actually. Because you wrote about your wedding.

Sarfraz

Oh yeah.

Valerie

And the fact that none of your family were going to attend, but at the last minute your mother and younger sister did. But your two older siblings, brother and sister, specifically chose not to. I still find that confounding. Is that something that you have come to terms with?

Sarfraz

Um…

Valerie

And this is obviously specifically because you didn’t end up marrying a Pakistani woman.

Sarfraz

Yeah. It’s a hard question. I don’t know if I’ve come to… I guess I’ve come to terms with it in the sense of that’s what happened. But I haven’t come to terms with it in the sense that it was a right thing to do.

I kind of feel like my brother’s only got one brother, which is me. And I don’t feel like what I did was that bad, to be punished, or for that to happen. And I also feel like weddings are once in a lifetime moments. And they’ll never happen again and could you not have just, you know, bitten the bullet, swallowed your pride, and just gone with it?

So it’s a hard one, to be honest. I do feel like it’s an example. And that piece that you’re talking about, which I wrote for The Guardian just after I got married, is one of the pieces which I’ve had the most responses from. And the crazy thing is that even now, literally last week, I still get messages via Facebook and Twitter from people who are in similar relationships wanting advice. Saying, you know, I’m just literally last week somebody got in touch and said, I’m a Pakistani woman, I’m in a relationship with this English guy, but I feel like my parents will disown me. And they’ll say that the culture clash is too great. What should I do?

I’ve become this unpaid agony uncle to people.

And the truth about it is, that yes, it is painful, the fact that they didn’t turn up. But it would have been more painful to not have ended up with her, with my wife. And going back to Springsteen in Prove it All Night where he says, “if dreams came true, wouldn’t that be nice? But this ain’t no dream we’re living through tonight. If you want it, you take it, and you pay the price.”

And so I guess sometimes if you want something you take it and then you have to pay the price.

Valerie

Yes. On a more positive night, at the wedding, just for listeners’ interest, your friend Amolak who features in the book and the movie, did a reading of lyrics from a Bruce Springsteen song. And tables were named…

Sarfraz

Why is that funny?

Valerie

I just think it’s hilarious because you are so next level. And tables were named after iconic albums. And you say on Born to Run, of course. Of course. So I think that that’s really cute.

Sarfraz

Well, we just wanted, you know what we wanted to do? We wanted to mess it up with the things. It’s like, I like the idea of a wedding. But I didn’t feel like we had to do all the traditions and formalities that everybody does. And so I thought, let’s have all the tables called What’s the Story Morning Glory and Nirvana’s Nevermind, and things like that.

And the other thing which was really important was I was like, what’s with all this stuff like the bride doesn’t get to have a speech? That’s crazy. And so I was like, no way. So Bridget did a talk as well. And we didn’t have a best man. I just had a couple of my mates. So we just messed it around a bit.

And so with the readings, rather than doing some poem that nobody’s ever heard of that’s just trying to sound pretentious, I thought, well, let’s have a line from If I Should Fall Behind. Which is all about relationships and marriage and things like that.

So it was just trying to stay true to who we were, you know.

Valerie

Now I have to mention to listeners that even though it may not sound like it, you do write about things apart from Bruce. You’ve written and presented documentaries on class, profiles on famous people, cricket, where you followed the Pakistani cricket team across England one year, religion. But obviously… I just want to make that clear to listeners, that you do do other things and that you’re a journalist and a documentary maker.

But obviously Bruce has been a constant in your life. And I have to ask why you decided in 2012 to do stand up at the Edinburgh Festival with a show called The Boss Rules. Why?

Sarfraz

Well… It’s a good question. Maybe it was a midlife crisis? I don’t know. I had just turned 40, so I was probably 41 at the time. Do you know what it is? There’s a bit of it where I quite like… If somebody says to me… There’s this thing about if you say yes to things, you don’t know where things will lead? You know, if you just say yes.

So I got asked, I don’t know how it got asked, somebody said to me, if you were to do something… Oh, I know what happened. I know what happened. So basically, I met an agent who did public speaking bookings. You know where you just end up talking about various bits and bobs. And I was looking at whether there might be some fun in that. Because I do a lot of speaking films and I can talk. And he said, well, to be honest, I don’t really do public speaking. I do more comedy, stand-up acts, and things. Do you do any comedy? And I said, not intentionally.

And then he said, well, that’s what I do. I book things for the Edinburgh Festival and stand up shows and stuff. Maybe you think about it, because some of your writing’s quite funny. And I think you’ve got something about you.

And so I thought, well, I don’t know if I have. And then he said, well if you could do something, what would it be?

And I had this theory which was sort of rooted in when me and Amolak were young, that there was no problem in life that couldn’t be solved… Basically if you had any problem, there would be a Bruce Springsteen lyric that could solve it.

And I thought, that’s quite a fun idea. And so what about if I was to do a talk where I basically expounded this theory and told the story of my life and how specific Springsteen songs had helped me. But then, this was the extra bit, at the end of it I throw it to the audience and they could just throw any problem they had in their life at me, and I would try and find a Springsteen lyric that could help answer them.

And he said, that sounds like quite fun. He said, do you want to beat it up into a bit more…

So I wrote a page on it. He sent it out. And then the next day he gives me a phone call and says, well, the Assembly Rooms, which is a really big venue in Edinburgh, they’re willing to book you for 24 shows.

Valerie

Oh my god!

Sarfraz

So this was at about February. Now, I have literally never done… I’ve interviewed people on stage, yeah. I’ve done that sort of stuff. But when you’re interviewing people on stage, there’s other people in the room. It’s not about… And also, you’re just sitting there. It’s a conversation.

But to stand in front of a couple of hundred people or whatever, and they have paid money for you to be entertaining and possibly funny, and there’s nowhere you can go, you’re just you there – I’d never done anything like that. And there’s all sorts of skills that you need in terms of craft skills, which I didn’t have.

And I hadn’t written anything either. And he said, so we’re at February, so you basically have to have this done by about maybe July so you can have it ready for performing in August. So you’ve got February, March, June, July, August – you’ve got about four months to learn the craft of doing stand-up and write an hour’s worth of material. What do you reckon?

And I was like, I don’t know if I’ve got what it takes. But then I thought, why not just say yes and see what happens? And I’m not quite sure why I did that, but I did.

And so yeah, so I did. And I did 24 shows in 25 days and then we took it on a bit of a tour as well.

But do you know what’s really interesting about that? It’s interesting how the skills you learn are transferable. So I learned about what it’s like to stand in front of 3 or 400 people on my own and keep them entertained for an hour. Now, I’ve never, I have no plans to do any of that again, particularly. But you use those skills in different ways. So now, when I’m talking, when I’m doing audience things about the film, some of the things that I used to say then, and even the way I say it, just the skill of how you present in terms of timing and all that, were things that I learned.

So I’m glad I did it. But I look back and I think, you know, that’s quite a scary thing to do, to have a bunch of people saying, okay, entertain us now for the next hour.

Valerie

Yeah! That’s out there. The other thing that’s a little bit out there, and I have to ask you, oddly you were on an episode of Friends? Is that correct?

Sarfraz

Yeah. This is getting a bit random.

Valerie

Because I had to ask. That’s like… How in the world did that happen?

Sarfraz

How did that happen? Well, so basically I interviewed Marta Kaufman, David Crane and whoever the third person is, who I can’t remember now, who are the creators of Friends. And I interviewed them and they were in LA and I was in London and it was a phone interview. It was about some play that they’d done which was showing in London. And at the end of it, I said to them, I’ve got to say, I am actually a massive Friends fan. Is there any chance I could be, if I ever go to LA, is there any chance I can watch an episode being filmed?

And they said, yeah, these are our email details, just keep in touch.

So I did. And then as luck would have it I was actually in LA the following year for something else. And I emailed them, and they got in touch and said, okay, turn up at Lot 25 or whatever it was at Warner Studios. I got there, I’m in the audience and they’re recording the episode. It’s incredible to see the whole cast there.

And one of the stage people said, is Sarfraz here? Sarfraz here? I put my hand up and was like, oh my god, I’m going to get escorted out. And they said, would you mind coming and joining us in Central Perk?

And so I sat in Central Perk and some poor girl who was obviously hoping that her job as a mute silent extra was going to propel her towards a Hollywood career was thrown off her space so I could sit there. And so the episode was called The One With All the Cheesecakes, which is in series 7. And I am in two scenes. I’m in the opening scene in the back and then I’m sort of at the bar with Gunther later on as well. So that’s kind of crazy.

Valerie

That’s just bizarre. All right, and finally there’s a scene in the book which is when you are outside a hotel or something where you bump into Bruce Springsteen and you say to him three words: Point Blank Acoustic. And then the next day, you’re at the concert, or that night or the next day, you’re at the concert, and Springsteen actually says, a guy requested this from me. And so if you’re listening, if you’re out there this is for you. And he starts playing Point Blank Acoustic. And you, in the scene, you cry uncontrollably, and I totally get that.

And later on your friend Amolak says, you see buddy, dreams do come true. And I really related to that.

But was there a point, I want to bring you then to you’re in the screening room. The movie’s made, you’re in a screening room that Bruce is about to come to and watch your movie. Tell us what that was like.

Sarfraz

So I mean you’re right. It has been a surreal journey. The thing about the Springsteen thing was that Gurinder flew out to show the film to Bruce, but that was not in London, so I didn’t see that. I was not at that moment where he saw it.

I think that… I know what happened though. So basically Gurinder flew out to show it to him, and then he saw it, and then he stood up and he hugged her and he said, thank you for treating us so beautifully.

And that’s an incredible, incredible thing.

I mean, to tell you what the nuts thing is, the absolutely crazy thing is, that this film is being released in America on August the 16th. But it’s having its premiere… When is this being aired by the way?

Valerie

Around the time of the release of the movie which in Australia is on the 22nd of August.

Sarfraz

Okay. So the amazing thing is that this film is being released in America on August the 16th. But it’s having its premiere in Asbury Park. And it’s having the after show party at the Stone Pony. And I went to America in 1990 as an 18 year old, 19 year old, with Amolak, and we went to Asbury Park, and we stood outside the Stone Pony. And there’s a photograph of me and him outside the Stone Pony thinking, oh my god, this is the mythological place that Bruce Springsteen frequently used to play at, and still plays at.

The idea that the film of me growing up in Luton in 1987 is having its premiere in the Paramount theatre Asbury Park, and that having the after show at the Stone Pony, that is the definition of mind-blowing.

Valerie

Yep. Absolutely. Well congratulations on the book, congratulations on the movie. And I know it’s going to be absolutely amazing. Thank you so much for your time today, Sarfraz.

Sarfraz

It’s been great to talk to you.


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