Dreams don’t come to Neasden to die: they could never have lived here in the first place

There are two things to know about Neasden: it has always been a shithole, but the demolition of nearly all its pubs has made it worse. 

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And so to London. The dog returns to his vomit, as the fool to his folly. I agreed to cat-sit for my baby brother, who is going off on a little holiday to celebrate his 50th birthday. You may remember me writing about this cat: it’s the one I let out by mistake some months ago, which drove my brother into a rage the like of which I had never seen from him before.

Now I am here for a week, looking after the mog, and a very fine mog it is too, and a very fine house I’m staying in, although I don’t know where they keep the pepper. Tony, if you’re reading this: where do you keep the pepper?

Anyway, That London. I thought it would be nice to go back, see old friends, maybe haunt an old haunt or two. But I haven’t. Instead I find myself paralysed into inaction by the sheer horror of Neasden.

For those who do not know it, Neasden is a suburb in the north-west of London. It has a Tube station that can get you there, and, more crucially, whisk you away. This, I have discovered, is the only good thing about the place. Apparently Twiggy grew up here but she had the good sense to get out, and there is apparently a temple but, as I am not a Hindu, it is of purely architectural interest only and not, for me, worth the two-and-a-half-mile round trip (on foot; my brother hasn’t been able to find the time to put me on his car insurance).

I have learned many things about Neasden since I have been here, and the burden of my research is that it has always been a shithole, but the demolition of pretty much all the pubs here has made it progressively worse. One enters Neasden, if a pedestrian, via the pleasantly unassuming old Tube station, which is above ground, and if you want to enjoy your time in the suburb, my advice is to stay on the platform with a picnic and maybe a good book, and then when you’re done get on a train going back the way you came.

If you must go out, cross the road and take the path by the railway tracks. Have a good look: this is going to be the nicest view you’re going to get on the walk to my brother’s house. You will pass one shop on the way: it sells a wide array of Polish foodstuffs, which is nice, as I am half-Polish, and like this kind of thing, even their slightly weird cheese. The rest of the stock is not exactly a gourmet paradise. You will find two kinds of pasta, if you look carefully: spaghetti and macaroni. You will search in vain for any fresh vegetables beyond the cucumber, or any fresh fruit beyond the lemon and the lime. (Although they get a tick in the margin for selling limes.) I think it sells tomatoes, but I can’t be sure. Onions, no. My time in that shop is limited to buying Casillero del Diablo Cabernet Sauvignon at £6.99 a pop (I’ve seen worse deals) and large bags of cheese balls.

Then, to get to my brother’s house, you have to cross the worst road anywhere outside Los Angeles: a place where you have to stand and wait until about 11.30 at night for a gap in the traffic. It is at the bottom of two hills and the cars scream down from both sides, and if by some miracle a gap emerges it is only for a car that has been waiting at the junction of a rat-run to dart in.

Will Self once invented the game “East Finchley”, in which players take turns naming London suburbs, with each person having to name a suburb more boring than the last one. The loser is the player compelled to say “East Finchley”. After having been here five days, I think the game needs some fundamental revision. Will Self and I both grew up in East Finchley, and just as you cannot imagine anyone’s parents being more gauche and boring than your own, so you cannot imagine anyone else suffering greater privations in a boring, ugly north London suburb. East Finchley it was for us, so East Finchley it had to be.

Neasden? Too obvious. A Private Eye joke, smelling more than faintly of snobbery.

But there’s no getting around Neasden’s unloveliness. It’s a prime example of what happens when a big road (the North Circular, in this case) both carves up and strangles an area, and when supermarkets suck all the oxygen out of a high street.

There is a bit of green space around, which is something, and the street I’m in isn’t poor; it’s just that there’s nothing going on. You can make a go of a poor place, but the very atmosphere here seems to militate against any kind of enterprise. I’m not a believer in feng shui but there’s an air of forlorn sadness about the place, like a vision of post-Brexit Britain, with the difference being that the people living here didn’t ask for it to be like this.

But then maybe this is all in my head, a reaction to having been spat out by London. A dose of good, old-fashioned alienation. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How politics turned toxic