Made in Neasden
I remember walking through Neasden, in north-west London, as a young boy, holding my mother’s hand. She’d give a little squeeze as we went past one of the rundown pubs, or if one of the men coming out of the bookies veered close, and loosen her grip when we came to the mosque. In the posher shops she’d put my hand into her pocket. In the newsagents at the bottom of our road I was free to run wild.
The only other place she’d let me roam was in the library, where I’d browse for hours. At that early age I learned to explore the grim suburbs within limits, but I was free to lose myself entirely in the little universes I’d picked off the shelf.
I wouldn’t ever claim that books were an escape. They never saved me from the mundane or whatever was frightening about my local area. But reading helped me see where I lived as a place worth braving.
Neasden was never pretty – a concrete outcrop between a dual carriageway and the North Circular. Somewhere on the way to Ikea. It’s the sort of place new immigrants land before moving to Kilburn, Cricklewood or Wembley. As a teenager, these neighbouring areas seemed far more compelling. Wembley had a Burger King. Cricklewood had a High Road and once, Doris Lessing. Kilburn had, for a time, Zadie Smith. What did Neasden have? It had a roundabout with a museum. A Tesco Express and a Tennessee Fried Chicken. I’ve never even seen the Hindu temple. Neasden was a nowhere place that was easy to loathe.
Thankfully, I had my books. And all the cliches were true. Books helped me inhabit other lives and travel without taking a single step. But they also sparked a deep curiosity about what was close and immediate – the things happening outside my window, the reasons behind what was happening and how it made me feel.
Whenever I looked out I’d see the melding of cultures and contradictions. The clipped English of our turbaned grocer. The Nigerian ice-cream man out by the school. Rush hour bus rides where everyone ignored the cussing and the violence on the top deck. The Islamic library next to the Chinese cafe. The phone boxes full Melding cultures … Neasden
of cards with hastily scrawled numbers for “private massages”.
I started writing privately, secretly about all of this, shaking loose those early inhibitions, testing boundaries as to what was worth putting on the page. I wasn’t reading the signals from my mother’s grip any longer, books had opened my eyes and ears.
Between what I was reading as a boy and all the stories swirling around me, that nowhere place began to feel alive, but only because I was finally open to it. When I write about Neasden now, it feels like I’m sending more signals. Here’s how it feels, how it sounds. Any place is worth writing about if written on its own terms.
Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City is published by Tinder.