Made in Neas­den

The Guardian - Review - - Made In - Guy Gu­naratne

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.

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