Zadie Smith on the Kilburn High Road
The author of 'White Teeth' reveals why she set her new book 'NW' in Kilburn
The Romans paved it. The Anglo-Saxons called it ‘Watling Street’, and felt it stretched all the wayfrom Dover to Wroxeter, in distant Shropshire. There was a time when you could take the waters here – on the way to Willesden’s ‘Black Madonna’ shrine – or walk your sheep up from Oxford Street to graze, or visit one of the five cinemas, or contribute to a collection for the IRA outside Biddy Mulligan’s.
You can’t do any of that now. Things rarely last long on the Kilburn High Road, and history troubles us only occasionally and without obvious consistency.
We think – we cannot be sure – that Dickens liked to drink in The Black Lion (with his friend William Harrison Ainsworth, then a famous local novelist, now utterly forgotten). Older residents will tell you Ella Fitzgerald once sang in The Gaumont State Theatre, later a bingo hall, later still, a church. Certainly AA Milne lived at one end of the High Road and WH Smith at the other.
Derek Jarman lost his virginity somewhere in the middle. And didn’t Seal clean the toilets in our McDonald’s? And wasn’t it where Ian Dury started his band? And hasn’t everyone in the entire city lived, at some point, on or just off Kilburn High Road – while hoping to move on to something ‘better’?
It’s a channel of a street, a through-road. North-west, and slightly off-kilter, it has never really been at the centre of anything. That is the great joy of Kilburn, though not everyone sees the point of it.
These days there is an assumption that everyone wants to be either at the centre or to be recognised and appreciated by the centre. Everyone wants ‘validation’. We forget that sometimes the margin is the only place you can breathe easily – or have any real fun.
Off the radar, never entirely co-opted: Kilburn bloody High Road. Not everyone wants to be a national treasure, after all, nor to be knighted, and not every building longs for a blue plaque or to be held up as a shining example of the ‘Best of British’. Not everything has to be part of the ‘national conversation’.
And Kilburn is not for joining. It goes its own way. As teenagers we strutted down this street happily ignorant of the ruling cultural aesthetic (which was, at that time, Lycra dresses, popularised by magazines filled with women who didn’t look like us, and which we never read). Sex appeal was determined by the relative bagginess of your raving T-shirt (the bigger the better) or the freshness of your giant round-toed Kickers.
Of course, sometimes the centre travels outwards in search of pockets of vitality. And what a thrill, one afternoon around 1990, to spot a west London girl on ‘Top of the Pops’, dressed as our echo, with her door-knocker earrings, a massive red and white varsity jacket, and a pair of huge-tongued British Knights, singing ‘Dub Be Good to Me’…
I’d rather walk down Kilburn High Road than the King’s Road – than any road in London. For selfish reasons: there’s so much more to see, and hear.
At least some of the credit must go to our foxes. Fourteen years ago, I saw a woman walk past the aforementioned Gaumont (now the State Empire) with a fox on a lead. It seemed too extreme a detail to include in the novel I was writing at the time; I laid it aside.
Last week, while in the back of a cab just off Kilburn Lane, I saw a fox strolling along the pavement with a huge bloodied pigeon in its jaws. Coming across a bemused passer-by, it fell in step with the man, accompanying him another ten yards, before sort of nodding at him civilly and crossing the road, apparently on route to The Paradise pub.
The foxes of Kilburn are something else. Almost as extraordinary as the people. Freeze-frame the High Road on a Saturday afternoon and there’s the best chance you can have in this city of identifying a person from every corner of the globe.
But that is only the dullest thing that can be said about Kilburn, that’s it’s so ‘diverse’. More interesting is the shared Kilburnosity, which – partly from necessity and partly out of a deep strain in the local character – compels people to make a life out of whatever comes to hand, cheaply and creatively, and with a pragmatism that comes from living in an area where the only constant is constant change.
That is of course an essential truth of everybody’s lives everywhere, but in Kilburn this basic principle can never be ignored, hidden or dreamt away. For the visitors always come here first, and the architectural failures aren’t replaced, and the shops open and quickly close, and the people keep coming, always coming, looking for their bargains, or a little company, or something to smoke or drink.
The natural historical cycle of gain and loss is second nature to Kilburn. In the nineteenth century they buried our rivers underground – but they built our houses. In the twenty-first Biddy Mulligan’s closed – but Kilburn Park opened up.
What was once Jamaican and Irish is now Somali and Polish. And many other things. But people still come for a bargain or for a little company or to drink or smoke. It’s not perfect –where in London will you find perfection? – but it’s alive.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the conversation, the ‘chat’. No doubt gentrification brings many wonderful things to an area, but one thing it does not improve is the chat, which slowly contracts until only two subjects remain: schools and houses.
On Kilburn High Road these staples get mixed up with a little wild philosophy, some ranting, intimate revelations and personal histories. Much of the chat happens around the bus stop in front of Poundland.
It’s hard to get directly involved in it all if you happen to be shy. But put on your journalist hat and grab a dictaphone – and suddenly you have the freedom of the neighbourhood. A childhood fantasy, realised. Talk to anyone? About anything?
Years ago, the Daily Mail ran a headline: ‘First Brent, then Britain!’ They meant it as a terrible warning to the country. I consider it a tribute.