My London: Zadie Smith

·3-min read
 (Lee Martin)
(Lee Martin)

Home is …

At the crossroads of Willesden, Brondesbury, Kilburn and Queen’s Park. I was born one street from where I live now.

Where was your first flat?

Chatsworth Road, just by Kilburn Station. I had a challenging downstairs neighbour called Hedley who reported the sound of my plumbing to your newspaper. He thought I had a jacuzzi in there. But it was just a bath. Neighbours turn out to be more imaginative than novelists.

What was your first job?

Behind the bar in a pub off the Edgware Road. I got fired for stealing. The sad truth was I can’t add up well so I kept giving too much change to the customers.

Favourite shops?

Singhsbury’s on the corner of Salusbury Road. First for the unequalled brilliance of the pun — it’s run by Sikhs — and secondly because whatever you forgot to buy somewhere else you can buy last minute in there.

What makes someone a Londoner?

An irrational love for their Ends, wherever they may be.

Best thing a cabbie has ever said to you?

I had a skinhead cabbie with a massive tattoo that said ENGLAND on his forearm. He saw me and my brother noticing it and then he spontaneously explained that when he was 15, during Euro ’96, he had been convinced England were going to win so he got that tattooed on his arm. Now he was in his 40s and married to a Muslim girl from Hounslow, with this massive embarrassing tattoo that he couldn’t afford to get rid of.

Ever had a run-in with a police officer?

Recently I stepped out of my door and a very drunk man sitting opposite shouted the N-word. I turned the corner and I saw a black policeman so I went up to tell him that we had a drunk and disorderly situation on the street, but when the copper turned around he was sweating and breathing heavily and looked otherwise preoccupied. I was halfway through my story when he stopped me, sighed and said, very sweetly: ‘Listen, I’m in the middle of chasing down a perp — could you maybe call the police?’

What are you up to at the moment?

I’m writing a novel, set a long time ago, in London. It’s 1820 in my head a lot of the time at the moment.

What’s your favourite work of art?

At the moment, A Young Archer, by Flinck. It used to be called The Negro Archer and for centuries was mistaken for a Rembrandt. It’s in The Wallace Collection.

Who’s your hero?

George Eliot. She did her work, kept pugs, went her own way.

Podcast you are currently obsessed with?

I have only really ever been devoted to two podcasts, This is Actually Happening and Talking Politics. The first is a single person talking about something extreme that has happened to them in their life. No presenter, no interruption, no vocal fry. It’s just a human being talking and it’s great. The second is David Runciman’s podcast about world politics and political thought. It recently ended forever and I am bereft.

Last thing you googled?

Shamefully: what happened to Brendan Fraser?

Favourite beauty spot?

Charlotte Mensah in Ladbroke Grove is the queen of Afro hair and I feel very lucky to know her and be a regular. That salon is one of my favourite places to spend an afternoon. The chat in there is legendary.

See Zadie Smith in concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, 22 April (

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