Author Zadie Smith hails the vibrant mix of cultures in North West London, but believes there should be more mixing going on in this so-called ‘melting pot’…
“I am a very big fan of ‘localness’”, said Zadie Smith at an event hosted by Cricklewood Homeless Concern at the Crown Moran last week.
The Orange Prize-winning author, who grew up in Brent, has set two of her novels (debut White Teeth and 2012’s NW) in North West London, and they teem with the different colours, accents, mindsets and concerns of these areas’ various communities. When the 38 year old reads an extract “for the first time in fifteen years” from her breakthrough novel White Teeth, then another from NW, she uses at least four different accents each time to bring her characters to life.
Tom Brown said in 1700: “London is a world by itself; we daily discover in it more new countries and surprising singularities than in all the universe besides. There are among the Londoners so many nations differing in manners, customs, and religions, that the inhabitants themselves don’t know a quarter of ‘em.” Not much has changed since then, with citizens from over 200 countries calling it home, and creating a kaleidoscope of tastes, smells, costumes, religions and culture.
Walk down Cricklewood Broadway or Kilburn High Road and you’ll get a taste of that mix today, from the Muslim man at the local shop to the Irishman that serves you in the pub. Diversity has been a normality, a part of London’s make-up for hundreds of years – but do people from different cultures actually communicate meaningfully within that big swirling pot?
A character in White Teeth, which is peopled almost entirely with immigrants, reminds us of how we are all, in the end, human beings under the same sky: ““It makes no difference whether you are being watched by Allah, Jesus, Buddah, or whether you are not. On cold days a man can see his breath, on a hot day he can’t. On both occasions, the man breathes.”
White Teeth describes Cricklewood as a place people pass through briefly before moving on, helping create a cultural melange that fascinated Zadie growing up, and would become the inspiration for much of her writing: “It’s incredibly warming to live in what’s basically a village, though it might not look like one, and to meet all these fascinating people passing through there.
“For me, it’s a desirable area – even though a lot of my readers, particularly in America, think I’m describing a total sh**hole. I’ve had journalists interview me who think London is just that bit in the middle with Marble Arch.”
Cricklewood Homeless Concern places people in accommodation, but as outreach worker Lucien Lawrence explains, also wants to find them a home “within”. Smith, daughter of a Jamaican mother and a British father, says the concept of home for her is simply a place amongst the people you live with. However, what she sees as a growing trend towards a separateness of communities troubles her.
“When I was growing up, there was an idea that a home could be a multi-faceted thing. Not everyone within the context of the room had to be the same. Growing up in my family, that’s a natural instinct because no one in my family looks the same as anybody else.
“But in the broadest sense, that of society, you can make a home with many different kinds of people. There can be a bond amongst them as simple as ‘We are north west Londoners’, for example. But now you hear more and more people saying, quite openly, that people are never happy unless they’re amongst ‘their own’. That’s become a say-able thing, something people seem to believe, that this effort to try and make people live with each other or mix with each other is doomed.”
She finds the movement that uses “faux scientific explanations” to explain such behaviour depressing, like the ‘selfish gene’ -the supposed reason why people always try to forward their own interests and those of their genetic family, to the detriment of anyone outside of that gene pull.
Zadie is married to Nick Laird, a poet from Cookstown, County Tyrone, who she met while they were both Cambridge undergraduates. She uses the example of the age-old conflict between Protestants and Catholics to dispel the notion that racial or religious similarity needs to be the bond that enables people to live together in a home or area.
“I often say to my husband that, if that argument was true, why on that little island do a whole load of white people who look exactly the same and have very minor religious differences, when you get down to it, need to kill each other for 600 years? It’s not about unity of genetics or culture; people will create violence out of nothing, so you need to hav e an idea that mix is possible, it can happen. That’s what makes a home, where people feel they belong.”
She uses the analogy of the university-sponsored housing she lives in while in New York; a big, tall tower in the middle of the city that, from the outside, looks very much like the council estate she grew up on. What’s the difference? In the New York tower, people are renumerated, but most importantly they are significant, they matter:
“The actual reality of the tower is not that different to those in South Kilburn. It’s not even the architecture, it’s to do with how willing or not people are to welcome and appreciate others in a community. It’s a hard thing to manage; it can be done a little bit by government, but it’s also the responsibility of individuals, something you have to do collectively.”
For the full feature, pick up the September 14 print edition of The Irish World.