Life

Home Coming: Neasden, in North West London

A tour of a writer's hometown, one ugly building at a time.
30 October 2019, 12:28pm
neasden bench

There are specific emotional bruises that form when you grow up and stay in London. While most people who live in the capital have come here from somewhere else, those of us who were born and raised found out earlier than most that, for all its endless opportunity, this city can also cause seemingly endless amounts of pain.

When going "back home" means a short bus ride, rather than a cross-country LNER train, your first mistakes, heartbreaks and triumphs – not to mention your parents, and all the trauma you inherited from them – are never far away. The bruise is always ripe and ready to poke.

neasden

For me, going home entails a ride across the tube map, from the Zone 3 of South-East London to the Zone 3 of North-West. Specifically: Neasden.

Due to a giant train depot, an abundance of waste management facilities and the fact it's both bisected and surrounded by the North Circular, Neasden has one of the worst air pollution rates in the UK. Stepping out of the station, not too far from that depot, you find yourself in the presence of one of the ugliest yet totally nondescript buildings ever built.

Once called "the loneliest village in London", Neasden is the very definition of a nowhere place. "I drove through Neasden the other day," friends have told me over the years. And it is always through; no one comes here unless they need to – and they never need to. You pass through Neasden to get somewhere else: to IKEA, to Wembley Stadium, to Brent Cross, to the M1, to leave London entirely.

niloufar haidari
neasden flyover

On Lord of the Mics II, Skepta raps that he'll "kill Devilman and dump him in Neasden", the assumption being that no one will find the body there.

Growing up, I often felt that nobody would find me here either; that as long as I lived here, under my parents' strict and controlling roof, I would never even find myself. I worried that what my teenage self defined as "me" would be lost completely – stifled by the type of dogmatic religiosity that is divorced entirely from this realm and looks only to the next – before I could get out.

neasden flyover

The peculiar strangeness of Neasden is in its nothingness. While feeling like you're trapped in the void would make sense in true suburbia, Neasden isn't that geographically far-flung; jump on the Jubilee Line and you can be spat out on Oxford Street in 20 minutes. Yet, in the 1960s, Private Eye used Neasden as shorthand for "the contemporary urban environment" – a stereotypically bland place for unexceptional nobodies, and home of the fictional and unsuccessful club Neasden F.C.

Still, Neasden has managed to produce a few household names: Twiggy, Ginger Baker and the notorious Teacup Poisoner all hailed from this unexceptional concrete outcrop, all before it was cut in half by the North Circular in 1973. Bob Marley and The Wailers also lived here in 1972. I like to tell myself it was the reggae legend himself who wrote "One Love No Parking" on a garage door.

Since that cultural highpoint, the only notable things that seem to happen here regularly are fires and closures: St Catherine's Church (fire), Atlantic House (fire), The Wishing Well (closed), Dicey’s Nightclub (closed), Dollis Hill House (fire), the library (closed).

neasden one love

It is impossible to speak of anywhere in London without mentioning immigration, regeneration and gentrification. Neasden has survived largely due to a succession of immigrant communities keeping the local economy afloat: Irish (Dollis Hill has the highest Irish population in London), Afro-Caribbean (Trojan Records was founded on Neasden Lane) and South Asian (Neasden Temple, built in 1993, is the UK’s first authentic Hindu temple).

The area has indeed got whiter over the past 15 years, but not because hordes of Home Counties creatives have flocked to the area for its cheap rent. Instead, the increase of the white demographic is from Eastern European migration, the majority of whom are Polish. The only regeneration in sight is a Costa Coffee in place of a shuttered Irish pub, and a Tesco Express that's replaced the old Wetherspoons that had bullet holes in its window.

sam's neasden

That said, change is slowly coming. The cinema where I got my first job as a teenager has been temporarily turned into a Flip Out trampoline park before the building is demolished to make way for the Crossrail station that's scheduled to open in 2021. Brent Cross Shopping Centre – the first shopping centre in the UK – is also set to double in size, and around 7,400 homes are being built in the wasteland around the area in the largest development scheme underway in London.

This £4.5 billion "new urban village" will straddle the councils of Brent and Barnet, with wealthy Barnet getting a new cinema, a town square and a Riverside Park, and Brent saddled with yet another waste handling facility and dramatically increased traffic.

neasden industrial estate

The contested area comprises much of the wasteland that defined my adolescence: the JD Sports where I bought my first ever pair of Nikes; the car park where I'd get stoned and try to do donuts in my friends' cars; the fire exit doors facing train tracks where I spent a shift eating sweets and stopping teenagers sneaking into the sold-out showings of Adulthood; the steps I'd sit on to have my disgusting lunch of a cigarette and Monster energy drink from the petrol station, the only source of food close enough to visit during an hour-long break.

There have been piles of rubble and empty rain-bogged land here for as long as I can remember, but they're finally being claimed. There is clearly no room for empty space in 2019.

neasden

Neasden's prettier, greener neighbour is Dollis Hill. While Neasden is all industrial estates and dual carriageways, Dollis Hill has a sprawling park and a surprising amount of history for somewhere that takes up so little space in the public imagination. The road I grew up on is in the middle of both.

Gladstone Park, which was part of William Gladstone's Dollis Hill Estate in the late 19th century, is probably where I spent the most time in Neasden outside of my bedroom. Lying down here among the tall grass the council rarely bothers to tend to, it was easy to believe I wasn't in London at all.

neasden gladstone park

Opposite the tiny duck pond, which is covered in thick, velveteen algae for most of the year, is the shadow of a house that was built in 1825 as a countryside getaway for the Prime Minister, complete with stables and a rose garden. It was later briefly home to Mark Twain, who stayed there before the estate was turned into a public park in 1901, and who referred to Dollis Hill as "com[ing] nearer to being a paradise than any other home I ever occupied".

My memories of it are as a burnt-out, haunted structure held together by scaffolding and tarpaulin. There were two arson attacks on it during the 1990s, with a final 2011 fire deeming whatever was left of the structure to be entirely useless. With the exception of the brick ruins at its base, which have been preserved for their historical significance, the building is gone now; the clean, bright brickwork feels a million miles away from the charred shell wrapped in ivy I once tried to sneak inside, only to abort the mission screaming when I heard a noise.

neasden gladstone park

The area was once also home to a Post Office Research Station (now luxury flats) where the world's first programmable electronic computer was built, along with Paddock, Winston Churchill's secret alternative cabinet war room bunker. He had a deep-seated aversion towards the place and only visited once, referring to it as a "last resort" – something that makes me feel oddly proud.

During World War II this was a place assigned to be used as an escape from possible devastation, but a lot of my memories growing up here involve violence or the constant threat of it.

About a 15-minute walk from Paddock is a quiet residential street with a house on the corner that looks like a fairy-tale cottage, its garden full of flowers. Outside, there are flowers all year round too, laid out for a 25-year-old roofer who died here after being stabbed at the pub down the road when it was stormed by 15 men armed with sticks and knives. At the bus stop a few metres away, a friend of mine was punched in the head and had his phone stolen. Two more bus stops down, a girl from my school was assaulted so badly by a group of boys for turning one of them down that she was hospitalised for a month. Perhaps counterintuitively, having grown up with the constant threat of danger has led to me now rarely being afraid, at least when it comes to cities and the things that can happen on their streets.

neasden
neasden

Unsurprisingly, for someone who both rebelled and chafed against a hyper-religious upbringing, and has a natural disposition for melancholia, I spent a lot of my time as a teenager feeling deeply and incredibly misunderstood. My childhood room was in a loft conversion at the top of the house. It was meant to be turned into my parents' room, but the builders fucked the job and, by happy, divine accident, the room became mine.

I often think that room saved my life. In a household that allowed no room for teenage rebellion or privacy, I at least had a staircase worth of heads-up before someone burst in on me. Like most teenagers, I spent a lot of time looking out of my window and wishing I was somewhere else. I would press my face up against the window, look up at the sky and slowly move my gaze down to the tops of the dark, looming evergreens and the long suburban gardens, leaving this corner of North-West London and imagining a different life as an equally bored but less restricted teenager in some remote Canadian suburb.

neasden industrial estate

The other side of the room housed a tiny nook with a giant skylight that looked further into suburbia and over Wembley Stadium, in both its towered and arched forms.

I stayed in the room this summer while house-sitting for my parents, and on my first night back I crept into the corner that I had once decorated with posters and cushions – re-painted and stripped of any sign that I had ever inhabited it – and fashioned a seat for myself out of the apocalypse-ready amount of bulk toilet paper that now calls the room home. I watched the sun set over the immense horizon laid out before me, changed over the years like all skies in all cities do. I watched it year after year from that eight-walled corner that had at various points hosted a mini shrine to Justin Timberlake, a quiet smoking habit and various outpourings of teenage hormones.

Aside from a hellish six-month period after I graduated university and before I got a job, I haven't really lived here since I was 19. I think about the passing of time, and I think about life and I think about death, and I think that I can't think of anything worse than having to move back here and do it all again.

@christopherbethell