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.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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