Zadie Smith’s London
The novelist explores the tensions of living in a multicultural city.
For every Londoner, postal districts have not only a geographical meaning but a social and economic one as well. For example, NW3 stands for “North West Three,” meaning that it is in northwest London—specifically, Hampstead. It is the haunt of rich intellectuals, media types, and doctors; Sigmund Freud died there, Keats wrote “Ode to a Nightingale” there, and both their houses are now museum-shrines. W8 (West Eight) is the home of hereditary upper-class wealth and, increasingly, of Russian oligarchs and Arab sheikhs. WC1 (West Central One) includes Bloomsbury and is therefore intellectual; much of the area has been taken over by the University of London, the British Museum is there, and one also sees an astonishing array of blue plaques put up to commemorate famous people who have lived there, including Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin.
EC4 (East Central Four) means Fleet Street, which, until the 1980s, was the home of all British newspapers; El Vino, a bar that journalists once frequented heavily, is still there. N6 (North Six) is Highgate, home to rich lawyers and a famous private school founded in the sixteenth century. N16 is Stoke Newington, where Hasidic Jews and Turkish Cypriots live cheek by jowl and where elegant eighteenth-century terraces coexist with the hideous public housing that will secure the area forever from full gentrification. Roughness and refinement struggle there perpetually in Manichaean fashion.
The social significance and meaning of London postal districts can change with time. In my childhood, N1, which includes Islington, was tough and working-class; but now, Britain’s best-known writers, as well as the rich apparatchiks of New Labour and the mass media, live in its eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century houses and squares. The borough council of Islington was once famous, or infamous, for its identification with what in Britain is known as the Loony Left: it spent public money on special gymnasium mats for lesbians, for example. Indeed, “Islington” was shorthand for all that British conservatives most despised.
The title of Zadie Smith’s new novel, NW, refers to NW6, or Kilburn, an area of London that in my childhood was solidly working-class Irish. Many of the Irish immigrants who flooded into England during the twentieth century first lived in Kilburn—though it is often forgotten that nearly half of Britain’s Irish immigrants were of the aspiring middle class or highly educated, and these, instead of moving to Kilburn, melted quickly into the general population. The many Irish who moved to NW6, however, chose it because its boardinghouses and rooms, of the less commodious Victorian and Edwardian kind, were cheap.
For purely architectural reasons, Kilburn, like Stoke Newington, could never be gentrified. Instead, its residents changed. An Irish presence remains, but it is small compared with the totality of immigrants from around the world. Kilburn is surely a multicultural district, if by multiculturalism we mean many groups in close proximity speaking different mother tongues (or different kinds of English), eating different foods, practicing different religions, wearing different dress, and holding different ambitions and cultural and moral outlooks.
It is this small but diverse world, and the dilemmas that growing up in it poses, that Smith, herself the daughter of a Jamaican mother and an English father, explores in her novel. She describes the atmosphere of cultural cacophony in the modern city brilliantly, as one of her characters walks toward and through Kilburn:
Sweet stink of the hookah, couscous, kebab, exhaust fumes of a bus deadlock. . . . Polish paper, Turkish paper, Arabic, Irish, French, Russian, Spanish, News of the World. Unlock your (stolen) phone, buy a battery pack, a lighter pack, a perfume pack, sunglasses, three for a fiver, a life-size porcelain tiger, gold taps. . . . TV cable, computer cable, audiovisual cables, I give you good price, good price. Leaflets, call abroad 4 less, learn English, eyebrow wax, Falun Gong, have you accepted Jesus as your personal call plan? . . . A hundred and one ways to take cover: the complete black tent, the facial grid, back of the head, Louis Vuitton–stamped, Gucci-stamped, yellow lace, attached to sunglasses, hardly on at all, striped, candy pink; paired with tracksuits, skin-tight jeans, summer dresses, blouses, vests, gypsy skirts, flares. . . . Security lights, security gates, security walls, security trees, Tudor, Modernist, postwar, prewar, stone pineapples, stone lions, stone eagles. Face east and dream of Regent’s Park, of St. John’s Wood. The Arabs, the Israelis, the Russians, the Americans: here united by the furnished penthouse, the private clinic. If we pay enough, if we squint, Kilburn need not exist. Free meals. English as a second language. Here is the school where they stabbed the headmaster. Here is the Islamic Center of England opposite the Queen’s Arms. Walk down the middle of this, you referee, you!
No doubt there is a certain exhilaration in a cityscape of this nature, with its constant stimulation, its kaleidoscopic or hallucinatory variety, its energy, its ceaseless pullulation, its never-sleeping quality. But the exhilaration is superficial, like the buzz of a drug; it soon gives way to a kind of anxiety or agitation. In such a city, the present moment is all, and contact among people is inevitably superficial, because they cannot fully understand one another. A lifetime would hardly be enough to understand the cultures of both the woman in the black tent and the believer in Falun Gong. Who can read Polish, Turkish, and Arabic and thus understand the concerns of the Poles, Turks, and Arabs? No one is rooted anywhere, impermanence is universal, communication with many is by pidgin, if that, and the best that can be hoped for, but not necessarily expected, is mutual tolerance. Mutual incomprehension encloses people in mental and social ghettos because the effort of understanding so many different cultures is simply too great, especially as the amount of time and energy that anyone can devote to the task is so limited. Smith’s mention of the referee is telling because it implies the constant need for adjudication among people who don’t understand one another and whose interests and assumptions are not the same—and may even conflict.
Let us follow just one thread in the passage: that of the murdered headmaster. He was Philip Lawrence of St. George’s Roman Catholic School in Maida Vale, which borders the much poorer Kilburn and is one of those areas both rough and genteel in which London abounds. In 1995, Lawrence had tried to protect a black pupil—William Njoh, 13—from a gang of young Filipinos, who were attacking him with an iron bar for the crime of quarreling with a Filipino student. The gang’s leader was 15-year-old Learco Chindamo, the son of an Italian father and a Filipino mother, who had come to England with his mother when he was six. Chindamo punched Lawrence and then stabbed him in the heart, killing him.
Chindamo spent 14 years in prison. Just before his release, his father, 55, stabbed a former lover, a Venezuelan woman, to death in the Canary Islands. William Njoh, the boy Lawrence had attempted to protect, became a petty criminal and was later sentenced to four years in prison for carrying a Browning .22 pistol while attending Notting Hill Carnival, London’s principal celebration of multiculturalism, during which he was preparing to commit robberies. A young man of Greek parentage, Costadinos Contostavlos, who had gone to school with Chindamo and then become a well-known singer (under the name of Dappy) in the two musical styles charmingly known as Gangsta Rap and Grime, and who specialized in the kind of nihilistic vileness that sometimes leads to instant fortune, released a music video in which he called for Chindamo’s release from prison, as if he were either a hero or the victim of gross injustice. Contostavlos later apologized, claiming that he hadn’t known what Chindamo had done; he seemed not to realize that this was not a great improvement, for to call for a man’s release from prison without knowing why he was there suggests a certain hostility to any form of criminal justice.
One begins to understand why the walk described by Zadie Smith might be slightly unsettling.
Despite its experiments with form, which occasionally make the narrative hard to follow and are presumably intended to infuse it with a significance that a straightforward telling could not produce, Smith’s novel offers much of psychological and social interest. An important element is the contrast between two black sisters, Cheryl and Keisha Blake, who follow divergent paths, though both grow up in Kilburn in precisely the same social circumstances. Cheryl, the elder, takes the unmarried-mother route, with children by different men. For her, the consequences of having these children are apparently a consideration not to be contemplated. The world is as it is, and she cannot imagine it otherwise; it has an iron taken-for-grantedness, and among the things taken for granted are that working will improve nothing for her and that she will always have a subsistence, whatever she does or does not do. She is terminally feckless because it never occurs to her not to be.
Keisha Blake is of a different mold. From an early age, she is determined, studious, and competitive. Despite going to a bad school, where low expectations are all but universal and where all the social pressure is to conformist rebelliousness, Keisha succeeds academically, gets a law degree, and rises to a position of considerable wealth—not without great personal effort, but without any serious obstacles. She is absorbed without fuss into the highly privileged and deeply traditionalist upper reaches of the English law, where, as a commercial lawyer, she is so well paid that she soon forgets what it was like to have been poor. She marries a man named Felix whose father is African and whose mother is of the Italian upper class. Felix “does something in the City,” as we say in England of financiers, the nature of whose activities we comprehend only feebly, and therefore Keisha becomes doubly rich. She has children and nannies almost simultaneously; her large house has a manicured garden not manicured by her. Her dinner parties are haut-bourgeois.
But this is not simply Samuel Smiles redivivus, with virtue and temperance rewarded and vice and self-indulgence punished. Keisha’s new life is not altogether satisfactory. She and her husband work so much that they have little time together. Her work becomes all-consuming; when she is away from the office, she longs to return, for she has forgotten how to do anything but work.
In addition to these normal problems of the ambitious, high-achieving young professional, Keisha has cultural and existential angst. She has long since changed her name to Natalie, which she considers more suitable to her ambitions and desired position. But she asks herself who she really is. What character, if any, does she have? Is she just playing a role no more authentic than her assumed name? Is she a “coconut,” black on the outside but white on the inside? Is her sister—sitting in public housing, dependent on the state, surrounded by people spaced out on cannabis, perpetually in danger of assault, always short of money, and utterly without ambition—more authentic than she? In so conspicuously joining the upper classes, has she betrayed her family and roots and sold her birthright for a mess of pottage?
Natalie visits her sister back in Kilburn after she has succeeded and moved away, though before she has had her children. They argue:
Cheryl stood up and stuck a finger in her sister’s face. “You need to watch your mouth, Keisha. And why you got to curse all the time, man? Get some respect.”
Natalie felt tears pricking her eyes and a childish wash of self-pity overcame her entirely.
“Why am I being punished for making something of my life?”
“Oh my days. Who’s punishing you, Keisha? Nobody. That’s in your head. You’re paranoid, man!”
Natalie Blake could not be stopped: “I work hard. I came in with no reputation, nothing. I’ve built up a serious practice—do you have any idea how few—”
“Did you really come round here to tell me what a big woman you are these days?”
“I came round here to try and help you.”
“But no-one in here is looking for your help, Keisha! This is it! I ain’t looking for you, end of.”
And now they had to transfer Carly from Natalie’s shoulder to her mother’s, a strangely delicate operation in the middle of the carnage.
Natalie Blake cast around hopelessly for a parting shot. “You need to do something about your attitude, Cheryl. Really. You should go see someone about it, because it’s really a problem.”
As soon as Cheryl had the child in her arms she turned from her sister and began walking back down the corridor to the bedroom.
“Yeah, well, till you have kids you can’t really chat to me, Keisha, to be honest.”
Natalie may not feel authentic, but this passage certainly does. It illustrates how completely the state has smashed up family solidarity. Cheryl and the rest of Natalie’s impoverished family neither look for nor need Natalie’s help, though she is becoming a wealthy woman; they look to the state to provide. At one point, when Natalie criticizes the public housing where Cheryl lives, her sister responds, “If I wanted to get out of here I’d get another place off the council before I come to you.” For Cheryl, independence means being independent of people close to her and dependent on a bureaucratic apparatus. Nothing could be more socially atomizing, more promotional of the raging egotism exemplified in the Learco Chindamo story.
Also interesting is Cheryl’s anti-intellectual and anti-rational remark that only knowledge by acquaintance, by personal experience, is valid. Natalie has no right to speak until she has had the same experiences that Cheryl has had. This is precisely the response of heroin addicts, for example, when told that withdrawal symptoms from heroin are not grave: “How do you know if you’ve never had them?” This attitude encloses people within the narrow world of their own direct experience and renders them uninterested in the wider world, which ideally ought to be judged by an interplay of knowledge by acquaintance and description—that is, knowledge both subjective and objective.
Natalie’s unease about her authenticity, with its undertow of guilt about her success, seems to me plausibly and truly delineated. The fact that she should feel this guilt means that she has thoroughly absorbed an egalitarian ideology, for there can be only one reason why to rise in a meritocratic society by your own efforts should occasion guilt. That reason is that one feels that everyone ought to be equal—equal in outcome—whatever one does or does not do. Though she has risen by her own merits, though what sixties radicals called “the system” has put no formal obstacles in her path, though her sister’s manacles are all mind-forg’d, Natalie cannot believe that she deserves her good fortune or that her newfound wealth is evidence of social justice rather than its opposite. (Of course, whether commercial lawyers should become so wealthy so quickly is a different question.)
Natalie cannot throw off her attachment to Kilburn, though in truth—as Smith depicts it—there is nothing remotely charming about life there; quite the reverse. Kilburn’s multiculturalism is not the sophisticated, tolerant, and civilized cosmopolitanism of, say, the Constantinople of Pierre Loti, or of Alexandria before 1956, in which a number (but not a vast number) of national and religious communities interacted amicably, spoke one another’s languages, understood and respected one another’s customs, and participated in one another’s festivals, often while occupying different niches in the local economy. This cosmopolitanism was generally harmonious rather than cacophonous; dignified rather than vulgar; settled rather than constantly fleeting. It was not drug- and crime-ridden, nor were its youth attracted to anything like the low-self-control, high-sensation ghetto culture of North America.
At the same time that I was reading Smith’s novel, I read a short book by the French author Richard Millet. Millet, once a respected writer and editor at one of France’s best publishing companies, recently caused a sensation in France by publishing a eulogy of Anders Breivik, the young Norwegian who killed 77 of his countrymen in protest against multicultural social democracy. Millet suggested more or less that Norway had it coming. He approached the same subject in the book that I read, Of Antiracism as Literary Terror, in which he pointed out that the French Left, which was outraged at Breivik’s slaughter, had itself persisted in supporting and defending Cesare Battisti, a member of a far-left guerrilla group in Italy in the 1970s. Now a writer of thrillers, Battisti has been found guilty of murder but has escaped any punishment except exile from the land of his birth.
Smith and Millet would surely not wish to be considered soul mates, but Millet’s view of multiculturalism is not far removed from the picture that Smith paints of the walk through London. He speaks of
the hedonistic deviance of the Other in an anti-national and post-national ecstasy, [which] we saw when Algerian, Moroccan, Cameroonian, homosexual and of course communist flags flew in the Place de la Bastille the night the standardizer of social-democracy, Hollande, was elected—which confirmed, if proof were needed, that there is no longer a French people but only an ethnico-social assemblage to which the Market and the Law give the illusion of a homogeneous whole.
Thus both authors, ideological enemies as they would be, offer a bleak assessment of multicultural society, which ends not in cross-fertilization, as in fusion cooking, but in paranoia as a way of life, mutual incomprehension, egotism, and solipsism. A day-to-day tolerance of one another’s existence is an insufficient basis for an attractive or even a productive society. Something more is needed.next>>