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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Zadie Smith's NW and the number 37

Zadie Smith back on her home ground of Kilburn, Kensal Rise and Queen's Park in N-W
Some swear by the A-Z, I prefer
Zadie Smith's N-W as she re-traces the map
 of the   London of her youth in N-W
Sitting on a shabby balcony in SW4 and looking across the Thames mudflats towards the higher ground of Wembley and Harrow-on-the Hill, and reading - drinking in - this delicious book, NW.

Am a big besotted fan of Zadie Smith, have been since before I read a word of White Teeth. Like  millions of others I fell in love with the idea and the image of Zadie, back in the late 1990s. And the book was damned good, as has been all that followed it.

But NW is different again, in the way she swoops back down into those postcodes of her own childhood. It's a fabulous movie of a novel and the images come relentlessly, in sharp focus, layering up effects of colour and emotion, setting off  strange resonances you don't even notice until 50 pages or so later.

I haven't enjoyed reading a novel so much since the summer of 1973 when - after years of trying and failing to read Ulysses -  it flew into my head and life over a four-day series of train journeys across Italy.

So now after all this praise, the boring OCD point of this  stupid  clump of words, my complaint.  Even before I get to page 161 of the hardback  edition, I am getting worried because the number 37 strand is building towards something all too familiar.

Like Leah, I have a thing about numbers, and all those things she says about 37 - on page 37, in the first of four chapters numbered 37 - are true. Shit and fuck, she's going to blow this with a bus route reference.

And then on page 161 she does blow it : "When they reached the corner by the MacDonald's, Leah Hanwell said to Keisha Blake: 'Actually I think I might get on the 37, go the Lock, see that lot.' "

Bugger it, she means the 31. I only know this because in the 70s I lived in Chalk Farm and went to work on Belsize Road, just off Kilburn High Road,  every day on the 31. And then I moved to Beaufort Street just off King's Road and again I could take the 31 bus almost door-to-door,  if I didn't cycle.

The 31 was the best tourist bus in town in those years. On a Saturday, hit Camden Lock market in the morning, scour the record stalls, go to Rhythm Records  and the Compendium bookshop, jump on a 31outside Camden Plaza cinema, get off at Westbourne Park tube statiuon, walk for 5 minutes to Portobello, scour the stalls there, drop in at Rough Trade, see a film at the Electric or just buy loads of cheap fruit and veg and stroll down to the Gate, get on another 31 to World's End, if you were in time and did not have too many carrier bags, even stumble into the Oxfam  shop next to Vivienne Westwood and see if there were any great Chelsea luvvie-donated bargains to be had, as there sometimes were.

Now living in south London - quick pass the spitoon - and occasionally boarding the 37 bus to Brixton or  to Peckham, via Camberwell - well, obviously this bus will never even begin to rival the old 31 in my personal pleasure bus route-map. Up to the late 80s I think it went as far west as Hounslow - but never strayed into any of the NW codes, however tempting they might be. (For bus route freaks, see this  item on flickr ).

So what? One digit wrong? wtf? I agree, within a page or two I was back in Leah and Natalie's world, even more so in poor  Felix's world. But in a novel in which details seem so important, then a wrong digit sort of hits you. Probably it's another deliberate device and there's a whole layer of cleverness that I am completely missing.

And I don't mind because I love this book in the same way as I love London, even the NW bits of it - and I am about to start re-reading it.

As a final sad footnote, I stupidly decided to use my favourite bus routes as my winning National Lottery formula. Here are the numbers I chose in about 1994:
11, 22, 31, 35, 37, 38

You can have them for nothing, which is about as much as they have won me in the past 20 years.

And for a really good, fair, and well-informed review of this book, read Philippa Thomas's at London fictions


















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