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Last Updated: Friday, 1 August, 2003, 04:33 GMT 05:33 UK
Sense of the City: London
The BBC is asking novelists who have a profound understanding of the city they live in to reflect on the fiction it has produced and the various works of literature set there.

Zadie Smith shot to fame with her very first novel, the bestselling White Teeth. The book won numerous awards and was made into a television series in the UK. Her follow-up book, The Autograph Man, was recently released in paperback.

I love London. It's more like I can't really survive without it. I certainly couldn't write without it. And it's much more specific - it is the area I live in from about Willesden up to about Hampstead Heath and back. It's just wonderful, and quiet.

Zadie Smith
In London no matter how rich you are there is somebody very, very poor just around the corner
Zadie Smith
When the book came out there were these endless articles about "shabby Willesden". And the terrible thing is I thought Willesden was posh.

I always thought as a child that I lived in the posh part of London. I always considered Willesden to be beautiful. So I've always been completely bemused by these articles, and my family particularly were enormously offended. So I never considered it that way, and it isn't that way.

I would describe White Teeth as a London novel partly because I wrote it away from London and I think that when you're away from the town you love, every feeling you have for it comes through.

I was sitting in a house in Cambridge, and I find it very hard when I'm in London to write accurately about it. You need a bit of distance.

London bus
The physical city barely appears at all in London-based novels
And particularly being in America now, I've written a series of short stories which are kind of dripping with affection for the place.

I don't know if I would write them if I were here.

Many people set their novels in London, but the people are Londoners and their pastimes are London, but the actually city, physically, barely appears at all, and that's very common.

The person who is most grounded in London is Dickens, and one of the reasons for that is he used to walk to school from Camden, which is quite near me, to his grammar school, which was something like five miles away, every single day, through the whole of the city, and then back again.

And that kind of daily stepping in the town - "flaneurism" - that's great for knowing something about a town.

The person who gets closest to it for me is somebody like Forster.

Howard's End is a good example of the perfectly suburban life led by Leonard Bast and that kind of lower class, suburban life bumping into upper-middle-class city life.

Martin Amis
Martin Amis "understood about the natural passage from one place to another"
He understands how London intersects - the way you can't get people fenced off from each other in the way you can occasionally in New York or certainly in Paris.

In London no matter how rich you are there is somebody very, very poor just around the corner.

I like Martin Amis very much, and White Teeth owes a huge debt to London Fields in every direction. It was the first time I had read about a London since Forster where he got absolutely right the random connections that are made in London.

You have this bloke, Keith, who is the main character of London Fields. Keith is quite low down the ladder in London, but Keith, in the course of a day, will meet the very posh Nicola Six and her kind.

He will go all the way down the bottom to pubs where all men do is throw darts at a board day in, day out.

Martin understood about the movement in London - the natural passage from one place to another. You can very quickly go very high and very low in the same week and I think it makes London kids very streetwise and very society-wise.

The kids who went to my school, they could go to a society party and they could go to a club or they could go to a prison and they would always find their level or be able to talk to people at their level.

I don't think there is any city to touch it in terms of its energy. Towns which are absolutely defined by their city-ness, I would put New York and London up there.

When we write about London we tend to write about it in our English way - disappointed and let down, and nothing works, and you can't get a bagel at three in the morning
But at the same time when you're in New York you can be uptown and you'll be uptown for blocks and blocks and blocks of Givenchy stores, and ladies with tiny dogs, and restaurants, and that's it, for miles, and I think that's an unnatural way to live.

New York writing is just so vibrant it's practically musical and it adores New York, it's in love with New York.

And then you've got this magazine which is devoted to the city like a lover. Every week you've got stories about this miraculous place they live in - it's a celebration.

But when we write about London we tend to write about it in our English way - disappointed and let down, and nothing works, and you can't get a bagel at three in the morning. But maybe you're not meant to get a bagel at three in the morning.

Oh apart from Brick Lane, where you can actually get a bagel at three in the morning.

You can write about the panorama of London but it's important not to cliche the idea of diversity. Just because there are many people of different races in a town doesn't mean the town is bubbling with excitement and joy and/or in the middle of a riot.

People are people are people, and the sooner the London novel gets to grips with that and stops writing the Indian-English novel or the Black-English novel, just to let the novel be itself.

Sense of the City can be heard on the BBC World Service programme The World Today until Friday 8 August, and includes Orhan Pamuk talking about Istanbul, and Romesh Gunesekera on Colombo.

Author Zadie Smith
"When you're away from the town that you love, every feeling you have for it comes through"


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