Towards the end of Zadie Smith's new novel NW, the central character, Natalie/Keisha, walks out of her home near Queen's Park - walks out on her husband, her old life - and makes her way across north London. It's a memorable walk. And today - with the bright winter sun making every aspect of the city sparkle and shine - I retraced Keisha's steps. It took me three hours. Well worthwhile!
You can follow in outline Keisha's walk by the chapter titles: 'Willesden Lane to Kilburn High Road', 'Shoot Up Hill to Fortune Green', 'Hampstead to Archway', 'Hampstead Heath', 'Corner of Hornsey Lane', 'Hornsey Lane'.
Whatever truth you look for from a novelist, it's not cartographic precision. But Zadie Smith maps out her character's route pretty precisely.
The walk emphasises how much the lives of the main characters in NW intersect with the author's own. It walk starts at Keisha's house on the Willesden Lane side of Queen's Park. Within minutes she has passed her friend Leah's house - and the Caldwell estate which plays such a big part in the novel.
This is exactly where Zadie Smith was brought up. She went to Malorees primary school just a stone's throw away. Her mother, it's said, still lives here. So too does Zadie Smith, not now in a council flat but a three-storey Victorian house. It makes you wonder how much of Keisha's story is Zadie Smith's exploration of 'the other path', the way her own life might have worked out.
Where Winchester Avenue meets Willesden Lane, cheek-by-jowl with more gentrified Brondesbury, stands the Fiveways estate. Not quite the model for Caldwell, but with much in common - including the stout boundary wall. Caldwell has five blocks linked by walkways and bridges. 'The smell of weed was everywhere'. On a Sunday morning, Fiveways was quiet, almost sylvan, and entirely odour free.
Keisha at one point ends up in Albert Road - quite a way to the south. She can't get through - there's a police cordon - and has to retrace her steps. The geography doesn't quite add up. But trying to make sense of it, I make the detour. Past the entrance to Paddington cemetery on Willesden Lane - where, as the novel glancingly mentions, Arthur Orton, the Tichborne claimant is buried. Past the basketball court. Along stylish Lonsdale Road - reminding me of Hackney's Broadway Market - and into Salusbury Road with its book shop and library ...
When I reach Albert Road, the other side of the tracks from up-market Queen's Park, I feel that perhaps this is also Caldwell - the estate is an amalgam. The sun is strong, the sky so blue, every vista has an enchantment. But there's also something a little spooky about the estates off Albert Road. For one thing, at midday on a beautiful Sunday, there's no one around. Hardly a soul. And then there's the hardness to the architecture. It's a little forbidding.
If Natalie/Keisha had managed to thread her way through the length of Albert Road and beyond - at least if she was doing it today - just before reaching Kilburn High Road, she would have come across a remarkable sight. Beirut come to north London. A wreck, a ruin, an estate block which looks as if it has been ravaged by a tsunami. Part demolished and - it seems - abandoned. A really unsettling and arresting image.
By the time she hits Kilburn High Road and heads north (as she sets out on her walk, her intention is clear: 'Without looking where she was going, she began climbing the hill that begins in Willesden and ends in Highgate') she has teamed up with Nathan Bogle. He's flying on something or other, and rolling joints. And as they pass Kilburn tube, it also becomes apparent that he's poncing girls.
They head up Shoot Up Hill. The area changes. 'The world of council flats lay far behind them, at the bottom of the hill. Victorian houses began to appear ...'. This is an area Zadie Smith knows with easy familiarity - close by is her old secondary school, Hampstead (though it's not Hampstead - Hampstead cemetery lies here, yes, but this is NW6 not NW3).
Not too far up the hill, however, it crests. If you want to continue going up, you have to turn along Mill Lane, Hillfield Road, Fortune Green Road, and then still more sharply ascending, to Platt's Lane and an outlying section of Hampstead Heath.
This seems to be the route Keisha and Nathan follow - pausing, briefly, on the margins of the Heath for squalid, feral sex.
They stop in the doorway of Jack Straw's Castle, the highest point of the walk - and indeed just about the highest point in London - then head down towards Archway.
The walk ends at suicide bridge on Hornsey Lane, which runs sixty feet above the busy dual carriageway that's Archway Road. She has headed here for a purpose but 'had forgotten that the bridge was not purely functional. She tried her best but could not completely ignore its beauty.' She steps on the ledge, and peers out at London as best the railings allow. She doesn't attempt to jump, but instead abandons Nathan and hurries off after a night bus. The journey is over.
One of the obsessive compulsive aspects of blogging is checking how many people come to your site, and the route they take to get there. That's how I know that someone alighted here recently by searching on 'zadie + tichborne'. How this delivered my site as their destination, I don't quite know. But I suspect it means someone else has noticed something I spotted but haven't blogged about (yet) ... here goes.
Zadie of course means Zadie Smith. The Tichborne claimant was a mid Victorian cause celebre, when an Australian working man appeared claiming to be the long lost Sir Roger Tichborne, and demanding his estate. The claimant became a big radical cause, and by far the most commanding popular and courtroom drama of the day.
Some of Tichborne's family supported the claimant. Others were convinced he was bogus. The opposition to his claim was seen by many as aristocratic elitism - a mass movement was formed to support the claimant - his lawyer was elected to Parliament off the back of it - a Magna Charta Association was set up with a radical and reform agenda which extended well beyond the Tichborne case ... but the claimant failed, and was eventually jailed for perjury.
So, what's the link? Well in her new novel NW - more about that here - Zadie Smith makes a couple of glancing references to Tichborne. Here are the words (p180) of a law professor addressing Natalie and her peers on the limits of reason:
"... Hundreds of witnesses stand in the dock ... They all say: That's Tichborne. The man's own mother gets up there and points: That's my son. Reason tells us the claimant is ten stone heavier than the man he's claiming to be. Reason tells us the real Tichborne could speak French. And yet. And when 'reason prevailed', why did people riot in the streets? Don't put too much faith in reason. ..."
But then, in the Zadie-ish manner, a hundred pages later there's a silent codicil. As Natalie/Keisha is on her long, desperate walk, she finds herself beside a cemetery she had walked round as a child. 'Local people claimed Arthur Orton was buried in here somewhere. In all her figure of eights she never found him.' (p269)
Arhur Orton was the Tichborne claimant. The wiki entry reports: He died on 1 April 1898 in impoverished circumstances, and was given a pauper's burial. In "an act of extraordinary generosity", the Tichborne family allowed a card bearing the name "Sir Roger Charles Doughty Tichborne" to be placed on the coffin before its interment.
The interment was, as far as I can make out, in Paddington cemetery - which is on Willesden Lane. So it all sort of fits. Fits the geography, the plot, and feeds in to issues of identity (and rationality) which are at the heart of the novel.
But how come her interest in the now decidedly obscure Tichborne story? Over to you, Zadie!
Zadie Smith's new novel NW has a more profound sense of place than just about any book I've read. The place is Willesden (part NW10 and part NW2) - the fictional Caldwell estate, the more gentrified streets by Queen's Park, along Willesden Lane and Kilburn High Street. The 'NW' of London.
Early on in the novel, there is a description of a church in 'NW' which won me over - an unlikely arcadian spot in the urban jungle of Willesden and around. It prompted me to find the church Zadie Smith had in mind - not a difficult task, but hugely rewarding. Here it is - followed by what the novel says of it:
'She turns away, lifting her head slowly and spots it first: an ancient crenellation and spire, just visible through the branches of a towering ash. Another twenty yards and the full improbability of the scene is revealed. A little country church, a medieval country church, stranded on this half-acre, in the middle of a roundabout. Out of time, out of place. A force field of serenity surrounds it. A cherry tree at the east window. A low encircling brick wall marks the ancient boundary, no more a defence than a ring of daisies. The family vaults have their doors kicked in. Many brightly tagged gravestones. Leah and Nat and the children pass through the lychgate and pause under the bell tower. Blue clockface brilliant in the sun. It is eleven thirty in the morning, in another century, another England. Nat uses the baby's muslin to wipe her forehead of sweat. The children, till now raucous and complaining in the heat, turn quiet. A path threads through the shady graveyard, the Victorian stones marking only the most recent layer of the dead.' (Zadie Smith, NW, 2012, p.60)
St Mary's is by a roundabout not in the middle of it. The vaults and graves - including that of the novelist Charles Reade (The Cloister and the Hearth) and his mistress - are in a better state than Zadie Smith suggests. Otherwise this is unmistakeably, precisely, Willesden's hidden gem of a parish church (if you are trying to place it, it's at the south end of Neasden Lane).
The Norman font at St Mary's
Leah and Nat and their brood enter the church, one of the kids climbs the Norman font - 'c1150, Purbeck marble' - and they read of the church's remarkable story.
'Parish founded in 938 ... nothing of the original church remains ... present church dates from around 1315 ... Cromwellian bullet holes in the door ... becoming the famous shrine of Our Lady of Willesden'
Unlikely as it may seem, the main details are borne out by St Mary's parish website and a notice in the church about its venerable and much venerated history.
In the novel, Zadie Smith's characters come across the young vicar at the church. In reai life this weekend, as I am taking photos of the outside of the church ... I come across the young vicar. He's new to this church, just a couple of weeks into the job, and unaware of Zadie Smith's glowing write-up.
There's an active congregation, he says - about ninety worshippers most Sundays. For churches in middle class corners of London, he says, it's often about managing decline. But not here in Willesden.
Part of his purpose is to revitalise the church as a pilgrimage centre. Unlikely as it may seem, the 'Black Madonna' of Willesden once attracted large numbers of devotees. 'Well, it's a lot closer to London than Walsingham', the new vicar points out.
The current madonna - mentioned by Zadie Smith - is imposing and modern. Though the holy waters which once added to the church's lustre - there's a spring under the building - have stopped flowing. 'The Holy Well is out of order ...' a sign proclaims, a touch prosaically for such a hallowed tradition.
One details Zadie Smith omits. St Mary's was where Gladstone worshipped on occasion, as a plaque on the wall records. He had an association with Dollis Hill and nearby there's a Gladstone Park.
I'm won over to St Mary's. I'll be going back. Perhaps see you there!
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