Zadie Smith, author of the award-winning debut novel ‘White Teeth and essayist, has written her first play, ‘The Wife of Willesden’ which will no doubt be a highlight in Brent council’s stint as the capital’s second borough of culture starting early next year. Boroughs of Culture is a scheme introduced by Sadiq Khan, presumably following in the footsteps of the UK’s first European Capitals of Culture (Glasgow and Liverpool), and the UK’s Cities of Culture (Derry, Hull and Coventry). Waltham Forest was the first Borough of Culture. This is not the place to pass judgment on the artistic merits of these enterprises, but two radically different sets of values and understanding of art is apparent when we compare the official, corporate speak language of Carolyn Downs, Brent Council’s Chief Executive and the language of Zadie Smith herself.
For Carolyn Downs, hosting a cultural event including the gifting of a play by a world-famous author, is an opportunity to promote her political world view:
“Diversity is our strength and our greatest asset,” she said. “We will celebrate migration, which has formed the bedrock of our communities and this borough for generations, at a time of great uncertainty and hostility to people who come to this country. We cannot allow that in our borough.”
It is a world view that uses the fact of migration to imply that there is ‘hostility to people who come into this country’. In the process she tries to present herself as guardian of the borough and all that is morally pure. The hostility here seems to be in her attitude to the public.
By contrast, Zadie Smith, who clearly has fond memories of Brent, the place where she grew up, writes that she chose to base her play on Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath’ because, for her, literature is a:
“long channel of writers talking to each other across generations, across countries, across epochs,” she said. She was also guided by her “perverse” love of a challenge.
With these words Smith places herself as someone able to work within a cultural and artistic tradition, to make canonical texts speak to the present in ways that can be genuinely creative. Virginia Woolf, in her 1925 essay ‘The Common Reader’ said that writers need an audience that is able to appreciate the intrinsic value of literature. Zadie Smith deserves a better custodian of her efforts than Carolyn Downs. We’re sure that the public, from Brent and beyond, will be a better audience than the official bureaucrats who are happy to present art as a political instrument.