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Conflicted Identities

‘Anyone over the age of thirty catching a bus can consider himself a failure’: Class Mobility and Public Transport in Zadie Smith’s NW

‘Anyone over the age of thirty catching a bus can consider himself a failure’ : mobilité sociale et transports publics dans NW de Zadie Smith
Lauren Elkin


Les personnages du roman le plus récent de Zadie Smith, NW (2012), sont toujours en route, prenant le bus, ratant le bus, discutant avec d’autres passagers dans le bus, descendant un arrêt en avance pour leur échapper. De même, Smith met l’accent sur une mobilité figurative et sociale. Tous les habitants de NW (nom du code postal à Londres qui veut signifier ‘nord-ouest’, d’où viennent tous les personnages du roman) sont en voie (ou aspirent à être) d’ascension sociale d’une façon ou une autre ; et ils sont tous, d’une façon ou une autre, en train d’échouer dans cette ascension. Ces deux formes de mobilité s’entrecroisent: par exemple, dans une scène où Leah cite inexactement un propos attribué à Margaret Thatcher: « Quelqu’un de plus de trente ans qui prend le bus peut se considérer comme un raté » (38). Chaque voyage rappelle ce jugement : le transport public vient signifier un refus ou une incapacité à accepter les valeurs de l’ambition d’une Grande-Bretagne toujours dominée par les idées de Margaret Thatcher. NW est le récit d’une culture en crise, et requiert du lecteur de se demander ce qu’est devenu le commun, le local, alors que domine l’individualisme capitaliste sanctionné par l’état. Dans cet article, je lis NW à travers le prisme des débats actuels et historiques concernant les transports en commun à Londres, afin de savoir quels débats ils remplacent, ou suscitent. En insistant sur la circulation urbaine et l’espèce de confrontation générée par la ville (et surtout les transports publics), NW invite le lecteur à considérer que dans la Grande-Bretagne de David Cameron, héritière du Thatchérisme des années 1980 et du New Labour des années 1990, trop d’attention est prêtée aux échecs des transports londoniens, et pas assez à l’échec d’un système social.

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  • 1 In their responses to NW, many critics have read the novel’s directional ambiguity as an expression (...)

1In Zadie Smith’s most recent novel, NW (2012), characters are always on the move, taking buses, or missing buses; talking to strangers on buses, getting off a stop too early to escape them. They mostly avoid the Tube, or they forget which lines go where, as if they can only navigate when they’re above ground, visually discerning the lay of the land.1 Leah, Natalie, Felix, and Nathan’s lives intersect like the lines on the map of the Underground; like commuters, they pass each other in the street and only dimly register each other’s presence. All raised on the same council housing estate in Willesden, in Northwest London (whence the NW of the title, referring to the post-codes that organize the city like the points of the compass), they venture out for work and pleasure, for various periods of time, invariably ending up back in NW. The 98 bus snakes through the novel, a silent witness to their doings and undoings.

2The novel’s emphasis on physical mobility is matched by Smith’s interest in figurative, social mobility. Everyone in NW is upwardly mobile in one way or another, and yet they are all, to some extent, failing. Smith emphasizes this when, in one scene, Leah misquotes something Margaret Thatcher is supposed to have said about public transport: ‘Anyone over the age of thirty catching a bus can consider himself a failure’ (38). Every ride in the book recalls this judgment: public transport comes to signify a refusal or an inability to buy into the upwardly aspirational values of Thatcherite Britain. NW grows out of a culture in crisis, as the bullish Britain of the years of privatisation and union attacks was replaced by a new Labour that left behind those for whom it supposedly spoke, itself losing power after the credit crisis of the late noughties, bringing back the Tories with their austerity measures; Smith forces the reader to ask what has happened to the local amid a state-mandated form of late-capitalist individualism that encourages consumerist spending even as it tightly knots its own purse strings. The novel is ‘a catalogue of economic austerity,’ as David Marcus puts it; a work of ‘socio-psychological genius that registers the psychic and material shocks of those left behind in Northwest London—those living in the type of public housing familiar on both sides of the Atlantic, where the buildings have regal names but also cracked-cement lawns and boarded-up windows’ (70). I want to read NW through debates both current and historical about the public transport system in London as a way of understanding the role that communal life plays in the novel, and in Smith’s vision of 21st–century London. What role should the ‘common’—understood as the various public and private institutions as well as the social spaces and conventions to which we are all bound, what Jacques Rancière has called the ‘distribution of the sensible’—play in an individual’s life? How has post-Thatcherite Britain failed its citizens, especially in a place like London, which Patrick Keiller’s irascible Robinson describes as ‘a city under siege from a suburban government which uses homelessness, pollution, crime and the most expensive and run down public transport system of any metropolitan city in Europe as weapons against Londoners’ lingering desire for the freedoms of city life’ (London)?

3Writing nearly twenty years after Keiller’s film was made, Smith makes similar allegations in her recent work. ‘The state is not what it once was,’ Smith wrote in a 2012 essay for the New York Review of Books called ‘North-West London Blues.’ ‘It is complicit in this new, shared global reality in which states deregulate to privatize gain and reregulate to nationalize loss.’ While that essay takes up the library as one meeting ground for a communal vision of British culture in the face of local council plans to cut funding, NW takes the bus across town, circling out from and back to Northwest London to examine how these issues radiate beyond one individual neighbourhood, and structure society as a whole.

4NW’s concern with public transport mirrors the role it has taken in British public discourse the last few years, especially as concerns the matter of London’s governance. In this discussion I want to listen hard for the kinds of conversations the subject of public transport replaces, or invites. With its emphasis on urban circulation and the kind of confrontation the city (and especially transport) generates, NW prompts readers to consider that in David Cameron’s Britain, as a direct result of 1980s Thatcherism and 1990s New Labour, too much attention is paid to how Londoners get around, and not enough to how they fail to get along together.

Why Margaret Thatcher Hated Public Transport

5‘Anyone over the age of thirty catching a bus can consider himself a failure.’ In fact there is no indication Thatcher ever made such a statement. It was reported in 1986, but never substantiated, and it is often repeated in different forms—sometimes it’s about a man, sometimes a gender neutral ‘anyone’; sometimes this age is twenty-six, and sometimes thirty; it may well be ‘apocryphal,’ says David McKie, former deputy editor of The Guardian. It almost doesn’t matter if she actually said it or not: what matters is that people believe she could have said it.

6Thatcher, the granddaughter of a railway station cloakroom attendant, preferred to travel by car than by train, and she believed owning a car was a sign of individual success and autonomy. Her model of self-reliance is incompatible with the infrastructure of a city; arguably it is incompatible with city life itself. One of the most salient aspects of the city, and of public transport specifically, is that it brings people from different backgrounds together in one place. As Salman Rushdie put it in his own work of post-colonial urban mobility, The Satanic Verses: ‘The modern city is the locus classicus of impossible realities. Lives that have no business mingling with one another sit side by side upon the omnibus’ (325). In NW, Leah’s impossible reality—and therefore her impossible destination—is motherhood, though she is pregnant, and the city, in the form of its transport system, will not let her forget it. On several bus rides in the novel Leah is confronted with mothers and their children; en route to have an abortion, she gets off the bus to vomit, while it ‘pulls up beside her and stalls’ (56), as if to echo her own stalling on the route to maternity.

7Leah thinks of the Thatcher quote as a reaction against the relentless drive to social prosperity that consumes everyone around her, dictating that she ought to bear a child and right quickly. ‘You’re next,’ she thinks, riding the bus with her mother. ‘It’s the next thing. Next stop Kilburn Station’ (44). Leah, on her bus, watches as ‘A covered girl on her mobile phone steps on as they step off and disturbs the narrative by laughing and dropping her aitches and wearing make-up’ (44). Leah, too, wants to disturb the narrative. She is more interested in the non-procreative sex she and Michel do so well: ‘For some reason it had never occurred to her that all this wondrous screwing was heading towards a certain, perfectly obvious destination. She fears the destination’ (24). Their spiffing sex life is an affirmation of the value of a journey in itself, and not its end point.

  • 2 ‘The roots of Thatcherism lay in acquisition rather than in production. It sought to create a busin (...)

8Her husband, Michel, an African immigrant from France, is the perfect Thatcherite citizen, ‘entrepreneurial, upwardly-mobile, self-sufficient’ (Morgan 443) who wants to own his own home—freehold, not leasehold—and spends his time trading on the internet, like an amateur City boy, trying to increase his capital. The daughter of a grocer, Thatcher saw herself as an outsider in the halls of power, and felt more at home with self-made men and entrepreneurs, speculators and financiers, than the Tory blue-bloods (Morgan 443). Thatcher’s ideal rentier culture, in which money is made from money, is evidenced by Natalie and her husband Frank, who earn a good living in the law and finance respectively, and spend their days acquiring houses, things, children, farm to table spinach.2

9Michel, Leah’s mother, Natalie and Frank all equate moving forward with moving up, physical advancement in space with advancing through life. No one is more mobile, upwardly or otherwise, than an immigrant, and Michel’s monologue early on establishes this key thematic: ‘I’m always moving forward, always thinking of the next thing . . . We’re all just trying to take that next, next, step. Climbing that ladder. Brent Housing Partnership. I don’t want to have this written on the front of a place where I am living. I walk past it I feel like oof—it’s humiliating to me. If we ever have a little boy I want him to live somewhere—to live proud—somewhere we have the freehold. Right! This grass it’s not my grass! This tree is not my tree! We scattered your father round this tree we don’t own even’ (29). But Leah doesn’t want to ‘go forward,’ Smith writes. ‘For Leah, that way [meaning motherhood] is not forward. She just wants him and her forever’ (91). In a way, it refracts Leah’s unwillingness to leave Willesden, even as their household is the target of two attacks, one financial and one violent. Michel’s continual refrain is leave, leave, move somewhere else; Leah doesn’t want to keep moving; she wants to dwell, to inhabit.

10Apart from Michel, the most earnestly upwardly-mobile character in the novel is Felix, whose murder, like the suicide of Septimus Smith in Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) resonates in the lives of characters he has only indirectly encountered. On this particular day in April, Felix has travelled to central London to see about buying a beat-up MG Midget to restore and resell. After that he spends some time with a former lover, a woman who lives high above Soho in a penthouse flat; it is in this elevated scene that he articulates the optimistic philosophy he has absorbed from his new girlfriend, Grace. Earlier in the day, he returns to the Caldwell housing estate to see his father and runs into a kid he used to know, who waxes nostalgic for the old days. ‘“Felix man, you properly local. I remember when you was working in there. ’Member when I saw you on the tills that time and I was like—“Yeah, well, I ain’t there no more.” Felix glared over the boy’s head’ (102). He may have started at Caldwell, he may go back to visit, but Felix is on the move. Tragically, he doesn’t make it very far.

  • 3 On this relationship see, for example, Alberto Fernández Carbajal, ‘On being queer and postcolonial (...)

11The novel’s central trauma occurs because of an attempt to enforce Tube etiquette: Felix tries to help a pregnant woman get a seat but the ‘bluds’ he asks to move for her take their revenge, once above ground, by mugging and knifing him. Significantly, this happens at a bus stop, in an echo of the 1993 knifing of Stephen Lawrence, in a part of South London that, as Brian Cathcart put it in Granta, ‘has never been penetrated by the Underground’ (1). Felix’s murder resounds through the novel’s other narrative layers, just as in Mrs Dalloway the suicide of the shellshocked soldier Septimus causes ripples of affect to resonate through the novel’s finale. Although to suggest that Felix’s attempt to help a pregnant woman is in some way suicidal would be cynical indeed, still the suggestion is there, in the novel’s clear intertextual relationship to Woolf’s novel.3

12Michel dismisses the news report when it comes over the television in the middle of a party for Carnival: ‘it’s just typical sensational reporting. They want there to be—’; he, subsequently, uses the murder as a pretext for moving out of their neighbourhood and going somewhere safer (92). This echoes what we have just learned about Felix from the news report—that he and his family moved out of their ‘notorious’ housing project to make a better life in Kilburn, ‘Yet it was here, in Kilburn, that he was accosted by two youths early Saturday evening, moments from his own front door’ (92). The report echoes the familiar refrain of disbelief of those who have met with misfortune so close to home, especially, it is suggested, in a neighbourhood that stands for upward mobility. Leah’s refusal to move cuts through Michel’s Jeffersons-like mythology of movement (‘We’re movin’ on up!’) as well as the news report’s faux-naive disbelief that one’s home might not cast a force field of protection of several blocks.

13In these different responses to the murder lies the ethical charge of the book. The murder cannot be merely a fait divers, something that is only relevant insofar as it relates to Michel and Leah’s personal security. Septimus’s suicide in Mrs Dalloway is to some extent an indictment of those present at Clarissa’s party, and their complicity in the war that inflicted on him the trauma that leads directly to his own extinction. Likewise, Felix’s murder turns the mirror on a society in which something is not working, revealing a massive breakdown on the social tracks, and the thanatotic energies which thrum behind the façade of British politesse. The ideal of politeness-at-all-costs (you step on my foot and I apologise) is betrayed in such a way that it suggests something fundamentally British has been broken, not merely a performance of courtesy but the ethics that bind a society together.

14The Underground functions in the text as a key social space where the future of British society is at stake, a kind of technological unconscious flowing beneath the city. But this psychological analogy was not available when those tunnels were first dug: rather, from its opening in 1863, the Underground was allied with the Underworld (one pastor believed it led to the mouth of hell). London’s poets and writers have often drawn a connection between commuters and death; most memorably in T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’; think of that crowd flowing over London Bridge; ‘I had not thought death had undone so many’ (66). In our own day, a poster commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Tube [Fig. 1] depicted a line of people traveling up an escalator; on each step stood a person from another era (subsequently in colour, as if to reflect the invention of colour photography and emphasize technological distance from the 1860s). The man at the bottom is in black-and-white, wearing an 1860s top-hat and cravat, followed (or preceded) by a World War I soldier, a flapper, a punk, all these anonymous, archetypal travellers underlining the fact that on the Tube, the gap between ourselves and our fellow passengers is not merely spatial, but temporal: when you’re Underground—so it would seem—ghosts are all around. Whereas we ourselves, with our own funny clothes, are the ghosts of their future. The final uncanny touch? At the very top of the escalator is a greenish haze of a woman, standing in for the commuters of tomorrow.

Fig. 1. Transport for London, 2013.

Fig. 1. Transport for London, 2013.
  • 4 In addition to Pike’s account, see David Ashford’s excellent cultural history of the Underground, L (...)

15The London Underground has always excelled at producing strong images to promote itself, even when those images have borne a merely notional relationship to reality. The social power of the iconic Harry Beck tube map, designed in 1931, ‘eschewed any direct correlation with the layout of the city it conceptualized,’ writes David Pike, ‘straightening the curves of the river and plotting the cityscape onto a grid of horizontals, verticals, and diagonals’ (104).4 But, Pike notes, ‘Perhaps what is most emblematic about Beck’s map is the way it flattened out the supremely verticalised space of the nineteenth-century city, where the growing segregation of London had been conceptualised as a divide between high and low, aboveground and underground’ (105). Smith’s directionally-framed novel further collapses this binary, in her own gesture at a Condition of England novel reframing Elizabeth Gaskell’s sweeping North and South as a more local London North and West. It is important to note that when Felix’s encounter with the pregnant woman occurs, the train is no longer technically underground, having risen above ground, Smith tells us, at Finchley Station. In contemporary London, where Undergrounds become Overgrounds and vice versa, the distinction between up and down no longer lends itself quite so neatly to Underworld metaphors, unless they are of the Christian or the Orphic variety. Bringing the train back up from underground is Smith’s gesture at replacing a rhetoric of public transport with one that brings the repressed subject of race in Britain to the surface.

16Smith further disrupts the image of the Tube in two scenes in which Felix considers Beck’s Tube map. In one nervous scene—he is about to negotiate for that used car—he has to ‘convince himself of details no life-long Londoner should need to check: Kilburn to Baker Street (Jubilee); Baker Street to Oxford Circus (Bakerloo). Other people trust themselves’ (117). In another, on the Tube journey that is to be his last, Smith tells us ‘It did not express his reality. The centre was not “Oxford Circus” but the bright lights of Kilburn High Road. “Wimbledon” was the countryside, “Pimlico” pure science fiction . . . Who lived there? Who even passed through it?’ (163). Felix layers his own de-centered Tube Map over the official one, questioning its ability to say what is London, what its centre, what its periphery. In Wendy Knepper’s reading of the novel, Smith deploys a series of textual games involving the map in order ‘to prompt its readers to remap known relations to place and explore the contested production of localities in a globalizing world’ (116). The novel provides walking directions from point A, identified as ‘Yates Lane’ (NW8) to point B, ‘Bartlett Avenue’ (NW6) as if taken directly from Google Maps, but neither street actually exists, much less the path that links them—Salisbury Road is a main artery in NW6, but Edgware Road is in W2, closer to central London (38). What follows is another interpretation of the route from point A to B, but spliced together from the various sensory information to be gleaned on that (still imaginary) journey. And of course, the bus is ever-present: ‘Sweet stink of the hookah, couscous, kebab, exhaust fumes of a bus deadlock. 98, 16, 32, standing-room only—quicker to walk! Escapees from St Mary’s, Paddington: expectant father smoking, old lady wheeling herself in a wheelchair smoking, die-hard holding urine sack, blood sack, smoking. Everybody loves fags. Everybody’ (39). The disjunction, Knepper argues, ‘signal[s] the discrepancies between mapped and lived spaces, virtual and material worlds, imagined and actual places. Following the instructions,’ Knepper notes, ‘leads nowhere’ (117). Felix’s upward mobility scans in this register of obedience to a certain narrative of how our lives should progress; his encounter with the map, and Smith’s invented itinerary, suggest other ‘directions for the novel.’

17The Underground, for Felix, functions as a kind of heterotopia, a site which Foucault defined as having ‘the curious property of being in relation with all the other sites, but in such a way as to suspect, neutralize, or invent the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect’ (24). Unlike a utopia, which exists on some imaginary, ideal plane, a heterotopia exists in reality; but, according to Andrew Thacker, a heterotopia ‘involves a sense of movement between the real and the unreal; it is thus a site defined by a process, the stress being upon the fact that it contests another site’ (24–25). The Underground functions heterotopically to the world above, as well as representations of it; if Beck’s map, as Pike argues, operates as ‘a conceptual replacement of that reality,’ the map as well becomes a kind of heterotopia (105). In this schema, perhaps the bus is—pace Mrs Thatcher—a kind of utopia, the symbol of an ideal of mobility which some characters covet and others, like Leah, are trying to escape.

18Public transport, for both Leah and Felix, is the site of conflict between the culture and their own bodies. In the 19th century, the railway, ‘rather than the city street or the factory floor, represented the site of confrontation of the body and the forces of modernization’ (Daly 468). By the early 21st–century, the shock of that confrontation has been absorbed into the culture, and underground travel normalized. But its uncanny qualities continue to be felt. There is something subversive about public transport, in spite of its everydayness; it survives based on Goffman’s concept of ‘civil inattention,’ or behaving as if we are not sharing space with another human being. It may sound demeaning, but it is in fact a social courtesy that we all practice, a means of according privacy in public to our fellow humans, indicating we believe we have nothing to fear from them, nor they from us, and a way of protecting them, and ourselves, from the sheer amount of information we all throw off, and are exposed to by proximity (Goffman 84). And if we were suddenly to stop practicing civil inattention? Rushdie imagines this in the fuller version of the quote from The Satanic Verses mentioned above: as long as city-dwellers can coexist without interaction, he writes, ‘they pass in the night, jostling on Tube stations, raising their hats in some hotel corridor, it’s not so bad. But if they meet! It’s uranium and plutonium, each makes the other decompose, boom’ (325). Like Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s ‘technological accident,’ when two points usually separated by distance are suddenly brought into contact. Boom.

19That is why Margaret Thatcher hated public transport. Or, at least, why we’re prepared to believe she did. As Felix lies dying, the 98 bus moves on, then stops to let a girl in a yellow dress on. ‘“Thank you!” she cries, holding her ticket “high above her head, like proof of something”,’ and the Felix section of the novel ends on the bus’s closing doors (169).

Transport For London

20When Leah escapes the bus to vomit, and it ‘stalls’ next to her, Smith neatly echoes the frequent stalling of the London transportation network, where at any moment, one’s regular connections may be disturbed. Even when the whiteboard at the station entrance announces ‘There is good service on all lines,’ this may not actually be the case throughout your journey. When these disruptions occur, Londoners cope meekly, moaning a bit but generally getting on with things, if slightly behind schedule. They are powerless in the face of Transport for London.

21This sense of powerlessness both informs and results from Thatcherism, a political ideology which claimed to favour individuals and small business owners yet managed to let them down in favour of corporations and big business. In an attempt to, in Thatcher’s geographically-inflected phrase, ‘roll back the frontiers of the state’ (Morgan 260), over the period of 1979 to 1997, conservative governments sold off over two-thirds of Britain’s state-owned industry. British Telecom, British Aerospace, Britoil, British Gas, British Petroleum, British airports—it was all sold to the private sector, to the tune of about 75 billion pounds into the Treasury (469). But after the stock market crash of 1987, Kenneth O. Morgan writes, ‘the sale of British Petroleum shares (over £7 billion in all) [became] much less successful. Many of the share purchasers now were large industrial buyers rather than the small saver or investor, the “little man” or aged widow beloved of government propaganda’ (470).

22It was Thatcher’s successor, John Major, who actually privatised the railways. She meddled more directly with the buses. In 1980, the year after she became Prime Minister, she introduced the Transport Act, which denationalised intercity bus services; next it was Greater London’s turn to be deregulated. It would be privately owned and operated by a corporation called London Regional Transport until 2000, when Transport for London, run by local government, was founded. But thanks to Thatcher’s politics of deregulation, several bus lines, including the line 98 which features so prominently in NW, are run by private companies like Metroline or the French RATP.

23NW was published in August 2012, three months after the London mayoral election and shortly after the opening of the 2012 Olympic Games, and exactly a year after the riots that rocked London after the death of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, shot by police. In that climate, public attention was more focused on transport and sport than riots or race. In the 2012 London Mayoral debate, the word ‘transport’ is mentioned twenty-three times and ‘riots’ eleven, ‘Tube’ fourteen times and ‘jobs’ thirteen, ‘bus’ fourteen times and ‘education’ nine. James Meek suggests that public transport is one of the few areas where London’s mayors have any authority or influence; this in part explains why it received so much attention during the campaign.

24But talking about public transport was also a way of talking about—by not talking about—the riots. By the time David Cameron came into power, ‘the gap between the rich and the poor in Britain was larger than at any time since record-keeping began in the early 1960s,’ wrote Ed Vulliamy in a piece for Harper’s in November 2011. When the price of a single Tube journey has risen to £5.70 in 2014 from £2.60 in 2000, Meek is right to say that ‘the Tube has become a luxury product’ (44). Though the bus remains a more affordable means of transport for the average Londoner at £2.40 a single journey (up from £1 in 2000, under Ken Livingstone), in his tenure as mayor Boris Johnson has raised bus fares by 40-50% when ordinary inflation would have seen it go up only 15%. But TFL is reported to have a massive surplus; in June 2013 the Evening Standard reported that nearly £100 million pounds of commuters’ money has accumulated on unused Oyster cards. When the Underground was founded there were different fare levels; today everyone rides along together. Class differences are no longer structurally built into the system, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. Livingstone positioned himself as the candidate most aware of the struggle of the people who take public transport; in a mayoral debate hosted by the Evening Standard, he promised to cut fares, and to resign if he couldn’t do it by October 7th of that year.

25Two weeks before voting day, Adam Bienkov wrote in the Guardian, exasperated, ‘Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone are locked in heated battle. Over buses. Is this really what Londoners are interested in? . . . Widening inequality, polluted air and violent crime are still all big issues in the capital. Unfortunately none of these are likely to get a look in, while both the major candidates are still obsessing over each other’s tax returns and bus designs.’ Livingstone lost. His Mercedes Benz-made bendy-buses were meant to promote accessibility, but were judged to be a public menace to cyclists and other vehicles on the road. Their bad PR was compounded by the fact that they had a nasty habit of bursting into flames. Rather than trying to advance bus technologies, Johnson effected a nostalgic return to an idealised London of the past by re-introducing a few Routemasters on several bus lines. These, Meek argues, are the opposite of a Thatcherite, Tory insistence on cost and efficiency; the standard red double-decker buses cost £200,000 while the Routemaster costs £1.4 million pounds. The Routemaster employed 2 members of staff—a driver in the booth, and a conductor who came round to collect money/tickets with a machine strapped to his front. Bringing them back was a nostalgic, populist move on Johnson’s part, an attempt to appeal to older voters who remember the old buses and younger ones whose enthusiasm for artisanal goods and brewing their own hops would appreciate the triumph of form over function. Five of them were hurried out just before the mayoral elections.

26It’s much better to talk about neat circulations through the city, and how they should be organised—top-heavy or snaking—than to figure out where to place the blame for an entire city descending into chaos for a week: education, the failures of the Metropolitan Police, budget cuts. The candidates pointed fingers at each other and across the board of public services. But the one thing about the riots everyone could agree on during the debate—everyone but Boris—was the fact that Boris Johnson was up a mountain in Canada when they broke out, and took his time getting back. ‘It was a catastrophic misjudgment,’ Livingstone said. ‘If you loved this city you’d want to be here when things go wrong’ (Ross).

  • 5 The Olympic village in the east of the city was cast as Labour utopia, described in the press as a (...)

27A few months after the election, all eyes were on E20, the postcode invented for the site of the Olympic Games.5 The film director Danny Boyle was called upon to stage the opening ceremonies, which had to ‘represent the best of who we are as a nation,’ Boyle said in a statement (‘London 2012’). In—as Smith puts it—a ‘nation divided by postcodes and accents’ (Changing My Mind 251), what are the things that unite Britons? Entitled ‘Green and Pleasant Land,’ Boyle’s answer, in a nutshell, was: Shakespeare, Blake, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Kenneth Branagh, Ian Fleming, and the NHS. No accident that these figures—giants of literature and administrative/industrial endeavour—were all examples of daring imagination. The dancing doctors and nurses, the children jumping and tumbling on enormous beds, and the letters N H S spelled out in lights on the central dais emerging from a reference to Peter Pan and segueing into a reading by J. K. Rowling, placed the spectacle of will and competition firmly within the context of imagination and storytelling. As the camera snuck under the bedclothes of a young girl turning the pages of a storybook by flashlight, Boyle suggested that the place of collectivity in contemporary Britain begins on the page; in the face of Thatcher’s suggestion that ‘There is no such thing as society’ (in Morgan 438), we find, on the contrary, there is, and it is nourished in the mind of young readers everywhere when they slip between the pages of their books.

28Like Boyle, Smith retrained her lens from the display of the Olympics to the everyday acts of defiance and imagination it obscures. Having previously been interested in unremarkable Olympic feats—in White Teeth, Archie cycled in the 1948 Olympic Games, though he tied for 13th—Smith turned to the Olympic fringe for her next project after NW, a short story called ‘The Embassy of Cambodia,’ first published in the New Yorker and later expanded and published on its own. Set in London right after the Olympics, that summer when London became ‘well attuned to grunting, and to the many other human sounds associated with effort and the triumph of the will,’ the story is about an African housekeeper in Willesden who sneaks out once a week and swipes one of their guest passes to swim at the pool (‘a large pool, although not quite Olympic size’) at the health centre where they are members. The narrator, who speaks in a choral we for the residents of Willesden, begins the story on a note of surprise that the Embassy of Cambodia should exist in their neighbourhood, so far, one supposes, from the well-heeled marble districts where embassies are usually found: ‘Who would expect the Embassy of Cambodia? Nobody. Nobody could have expected it, or be expecting it. It’s a surprise, to us all. The Embassy of Cambodia!’ That the embassy in question should also have an ongoing game of badminton in its front yard is presented more as a matter of fact than surprise.

29The word ‘will’ appears 15 times in the story, 9 of which are at the beginning of the name Willesden. These stories modify the notion of ‘will’ and reframe it on a personal level, pointing us toward the unseen people around and even in the Olympics—coming in 13th, or exercising their own will far away from the cameras to swim on a stolen guest pass. The story ends with Fatou, having been fired, sitting on the pavement near a bus stop with all her worldly goods in a couple of plastic bags. ‘We worried for her. We tend to assume the worst, here in Willesden. We watched her watching the shuttlecock. Pock, smash. Pock, smash. As if one player could imagine only a violent conclusion and the other only a hopeful return.’ Each section of the story is prefaced by a badminton score: 0-1, 0-2, 0-3, and so on until the final score, 0-21. Fatou is put in a double position, as both the losing player, locked in this dialectic of hope and violence, and the spectator to her own misfortunes. There is no indication that she will get on the next bus to come, merely that a bus stop can occasionally be transformed from a place to wait into a place to rest.

30And yet Fatou does manage a small success. She has been fired for taking better care of the children than their parents, not for stealing the guest passes. The parents ‘would never know how many miles Fatou had travelled on their membership.’ Although she has been their housekeeper in name, she was their prisoner in practice: they took her passport and ‘retained’ her wages to pay for her food and rent. By taking these passes she has become their guest without their knowing it, a local echo of the athletes across the city, celebrated foreign guests in the capital. In this way, ‘The Embassy of Cambodia’ links up with the theme of hospitality that structures NW, with its different sections entitled ‘visitation,’ ‘guest,’ ‘host,’ and ‘crossing,’ swapping the passport of citizenship and belonging for the stolen guest pass of self-determination. From the international spectacle of the Olympic games, Smith extracts a local story, asking the reader to pay attention to issues of empire and international domination right in their own neighbourhoods—the embassy of Cambodia more difficult to naturalise than an African woman’s mistreatment.


  • 6 In this instance, Wood was discussing Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (‘Abhorring a Vacuum,’ The (...)

31Although Smith’s work concerns a dizzying range of people and places, it has always been, as David James puts it, ‘distinctly localized’ (205). It may appear to span a global, cosmopolitan vision, but its remit is decidedly local, tracing the connections between people who may on the surface have little to do with each other. Smith situated herself as the heir to E. M. Forster’s ethics of connection by publishing a contemporary transatlantic adaptation of Howards End (1910), with 2005’s On Beauty. David Marcus has argued that much of turn-of-the-21st century writing has been marked by the Forsterian imperative ‘Only connect’; unlike an older group of writers like Pynchon or DeLillo, who ‘emphasised the unseen networks of government agents and advertising executives that limited our everyday lives,’ writers like Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, and Smith tried ‘to map out more local, more empowering connections: to mine the present for those rare, fragile moments of contact—those brief human intersections that remind us that while we are all each desperately unknowable and alone we are also in this together’ (67). Ironically, Marcus notes, they did not always succeed in establishing this feeling of interconnection, and more often than not presented a world as atomised and ‘entropic’ as anything in Pynchon. Smith’s own debut novel, White Teeth, was singled out by James Wood as an exemplar of ‘hysterial realism,’ a fashionable genre of novels that throw out a plethora of ideas—‘How to make the best Indonesian fish curry! The sonics of the trombone! The drug market of Detroit! The history of strip cartoons!’—but fail to capture the human beings behind the cacophony of world culture (202).6 Smith took Wood’s words to heart, and she’s been paying careful attention to the way human beings live together in a community ever since. (Arguably, this is also what she was doing in White Teeth, but the attempt was lost in the pyrotechnics.)

32But although in NW Smith has been understood to have turned to Joyce and Woolf for inspiration and stylistic guidance, the novel demonstrates that thematically, she had not finished with Forster. If, as Dorothy J. Hale argues, On Beauty ‘portrays the particularity and contingency of each individual’s apprehension of beauty . . . stress[ing] its relativity and social constructedness,’ NW confronts these issues within the social space of the city (815), picking up Forster’s critique of transportation and applying it to post-Thatcherite London. Forster’s enemy was the forces of modernisation, taking their toll on the landscape. London, to whom the characters’ relationship can be described as ambivalent at best, is said to be ‘bleeding’ into the countryside, a harbinger of a ‘nomadic civilization’ which would disconnect humanity from the earth for good: ‘Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they once exercised on character must be entrusted to Love alone’ (261). In his reading of the novel, Fredric Jameson suggests that this hostility is ‘not simple romantic antiurban or antimodern nostalgia . . . It is in Forster imperialism, or Empire’ (57). Foster’s novel draws an explicit link between the private motor-car (or rather, its owner), and imperialism:

Healthy, ever in motion, it hopes to inherit the earth. It breads as quickly as the yeoman, and as soundly; strong is the temptation to acclaim it as a super-yeoman, who carries his country’s virtue overseas. But the Imperialist is not what he thinks or seems. He is a destroyer. He prepares the way for cosmopolitanism, and though his ambitions may be fulfilled, the earth that he inherits will be grey. (314–315)

  • 7 Further discussions of these issues may be found in Andrew Thacker’s “EM Forster and the Motor-Car” (...)

33Forster’s critique of the motor-car’s progress over the land is, in Jameson’s reading, is at the same time an attempt at recognising the imperial subjects who are unrepresentable in the daily life of the metropolis; the image of the Great North Road a new, specifically modernist, spatial language, ‘the marker and the substitute . . . of the unrepresentable totality’ (58).7

34In continuing an intertextual relationship to Howards End Smith attempts to create a visible, legible ethics of metropolitan contact and connection. The Great North Road stretches out towards ‘infinity’ (14), but NW circles back on itself, like the 98 bus on its many daily journeys between Pound Lane/Willesden Bus Garage and Russell Square. While Howards End stands against the ‘craze for motion’ (329), yearning for a walking, human pace, and a connection with the earth, NW regards movement as a means of making other connections, and espouses a political power, even a potential violence, in these collisions. Not long before NW was published, Smith described it as a novel ‘filled with strange encounters, local encounters between people of quite different class and background’ (‘NW, Zadie Smith.’). Her characters are very different, yes, but as the title implies, they are all from the same place. But place, even in London, especially in today’s London, is not a leveller. What, then, does ‘local’ mean for Smith, in a novel so heavily marked by journeys to and from one’s place of origin?

35Smith took the novel’s epigraph from the 14th century priest John Ball’s speech during the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, which got him hanged, drawn and quartered for sedition. A paean to equality, Ball declares that ‘From the beginning all men by nature were created alike,’ and exhorts his listeners to ‘cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.’ In NW, the yoke of bondage is different things to different people—to Leah, it is the expectation that she will bear a child; to Natalie, the yuppie lifestyle she has worked so hard to attain that now seems stifling; to Felix it is the inescapable violence of the estate; to Nathan, the way young black men are seen and feared even by their own communities once they reach a certain age. Equal they may have begun, but they have ranged in very different directions, all without moving too far from where they grew up. Leah, for example, now lives across the street from the estate where she was born. ‘From there to here, a journey longer than it looks,’ she reflects (12).

36Local does not mean equal. But place does set up links between people, which we strain to make sense of. The novel opens with Leah getting conned out of £30 by a girl called Shar, with whom she went to high school but hasn’t seen since, and who more or less follows her around for the rest of the book—it’s never clear if her constant presence is coincidence or stalking. The notion of connectedness is a frequent trope in city texts; in films, in books, city-dwellers pass each other all the time and have no idea what they mean to each other. The same holds true in NW, in which the bonds of neighbourhood are at once deep and arbitrary. ‘“You went Brayton”,’ repeats Shar in disbelief (9). Then her photographs get mixed up with Leah’s when she has them developed in the pharmacy. ‘NW, a small place. With two pharmacies. Photographs get mixed up.’ But Leah can’t get over the coincidence, ‘Like a riddle in a dream,’ she thinks (95). There is some suggestion that one of the ‘bluds’ who kills Felix is Nathan Bogle, who has become what a Tory might term a ‘marginal’ member of society, hanging around stations begging for money, selling drugs, and doing dubious things with a group of girls he has under his thumb, including Shar. It is Nathan who, at the novel’s end, comes upon Natalie who has just left her husband and is on a deranged, suicidal night-time dérive across Northern London, from Kilburn to Highgate. Smith plays it both ways: while on one hand it is a cringing moment when Shar, mid-con, takes Leah’s face in her hands and says ‘“You’re a really good person. I was meant to come to your door”,’ on the other hand we do hear the echo of sincerity. These coincidences are officially just that, coincidences, not the topography of the universe’s plan for us, but they are also what hold the fabric of a community together. These ‘local’ moments are the stuff of the ‘imagined community,’ in that they invite us to imagine that we are part of one.

37Felix has been thinking all day about how important it is for these coincidences to mean something. He and his girlfriend met when he chatted her up at a bus stop, and later this would become part of their romantic mythology: ‘“And Fee, remember: I weren’t even meant to be there. I was meant to be at my aunt’s in Wembley. Remember? . . . Felix please don’t try and tell me that weren’t fate”’ (117). We weren’t supposed to be there, and yet somehow we were: the city’s ode to chance. City life makes you want to believe in things like fate; Grace makes Felix want to believe that the universe is looking after him, setting him ‘free’ (162). Felix’s acceptance of Grace’s narrative could be read as a wholesale belief in fictional instructions like the imaginary Google Maps guide, narratives that adhere to the logic of invented worlds that resemble the one we live in, but only superficially. The Disney-topia of being accidentally in the right place at the right time has its tragic underside in Felix’s actual fate.

38Sadly for Felix, the universe does not have his back. The white pregnant woman who ends up inadvertently causing his death is subtly racist; ‘can you ask your friend to move his feet,’ she asks him, though the guy she’s talking about isn’t Felix’s friend; she assumes they are, based on the way they look: all black, all dressed like urban youth. In fact they’re total strangers, brought into contact on the public train; their relationship is created by her request, and betrayed by his siding with her against them. By assimilating himself to everyday British transport courtesies, such as making room for the pregnant and the elderly, Felix has betrayed the collective and signed his own death warrant. Their killing him is not a random act, but a punishment for getting above himself, and therefore above them. “Big man on the train,” they say as they beat him. ‘“Ain’t such a big man now”’ (168). Similarly, the riots of August 2011 were an attempt not just to break the ‘common,’ smashing its windows and stealing its goods, but a protest at being excluded from it.

39There is an interesting spatial metaphor in Thatcher’s vision for the British economy, her promise to ‘roll back the frontiers of the state.’ Public transport criss-crosses all over the sovereign land from which the state has been rolled back, and for Thatcher and her successors the ‘public’ needed to be taken out of ‘transport.’ Smith puts it back in. As her 2012 essay ‘North-West London Blues’ attests, a community is formed and maintained by people showing themselves in public. In some ways survival on 21st–century public transport is a matter of individual protection through civic engagement. ‘Keep your belongings with you at all times,’ and if you see something fishy, ‘Please inform a member of staff.’ These are ways of saying things without saying things, just as commuters see each other without seeing each other. If everyone is in their own cars, in their own detached homes, Thatcher is right to say ‘there is no such thing as society.’ But if people are together, on public transport, living cheek by jowl, then this manifestly isn’t true. ‘Everybody knows that if people hang around for any length of time in an urban area without purpose they are likely to become “anti-social”,’ Smith writes.

And indeed there were four homeless drunks sitting on one of the library’s strange architectural protrusions, drinking Special Brew. Perhaps in a village they would be sitting under a tree, or have already been driven from the area by a farmer with a pitchfork. I do not claim to know what happens in villages. But here in Willesden they were sat on their ledge and the rest of us were congregating for no useful purpose in the unlovely concrete space, simply standing around in the sunshine, like some kind of community.

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1 In their responses to NW, many critics have read the novel’s directional ambiguity as an expression of Smith’s stylistic indeterminacy. David James: ‘For over a decade now, Zadie Smith has been changing her mind about the kind of novel she wants to write . . . If “[a]ll novels,” she says, “attempt to cut neural routes through the brain, to convince us down this road the true future of the Novel lies” (‘Two Directions,’ 71), then it’s easy to read NW as a deliberate attempt to lead us off the beaten track’ (James 212). Vanessa Guignery: ‘In her comeback as a novelist with NW, what road does she now take? That of lyrical realism and the well-made novel, or the skewed side road of constructive deconstruction?’ (Guignery); Ruth Franklin: ‘[I]f all these course-changes and about-faces induce whiplash, it is not entirely Smith’s fault. For the path of her first three novels traces in microcosm the currents of literary fiction over the last hundred years’ (Franklin). Of course Smith herself implicitly acknowledged these issues in a much-referenced essay of her own, ‘Two Directions for the Novel’ (Smith 2009).

2 ‘The roots of Thatcherism lay in acquisition rather than in production. It sought to create a business, perhaps a rentier culture’ (Morgan 443).

3 On this relationship see, for example, Alberto Fernández Carbajal, ‘On being queer and postcolonial: Reading Zadie Smith’s NW through Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway’, The Journal of Commonwealth Literature (2014), and Lynn Wells, ‘The Right to a Secret: Zadie Smith’s NW.’ Reading Zadie Smith: The First Decade and Beyond, ed. Philip Tew, London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013, 97–110.

4 In addition to Pike’s account, see David Ashford’s excellent cultural history of the Underground, London Underground: A Cultural Geography, Liverpool UP, 2013.

5 The Olympic village in the east of the city was cast as Labour utopia, described in the press as a ‘global village.’ (The Independent, 5 Aug. 2012). Today—‘hilariously,’ says the Guardian—the neighbourhood has been rechristened ‘East Village’ (Wilkinson).

6 In this instance, Wood was discussing Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (‘Abhorring a Vacuum,’ The New Republic, 15 Oct. 2001, repr. in The Irresponsible Self).

7 Further discussions of these issues may be found in Andrew Thacker’s “EM Forster and the Motor-Car”, Literature and History 9.2 (2000): 37–52, and Heather McNaugher, "She sought a spiritual heir": Cosmopolitanism and the Pre-suburban in Howards End”, Literary Cartographies: Spatiality, Representation, and Narrative, ed. Robert Tally, London: Palgrave, 2014.

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Lauren Elkin, « ‘Anyone over the age of thirty catching a bus can consider himself a failure’: Class Mobility and Public Transport in Zadie Smith’s NW »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 49 | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2015, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Lauren Elkin

Lauren Elkin is a lecturer in English and Comparative Literature at the American University of Paris. She is the author of an essay on Oulipo (Zer0 Books, 2013), is soon to publish a book on the flâneuse (Chatto & Windus, 2016) and is currently working on a study of ethics and narratives of space in the work of Elizabeth Bowen.

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