Reflecting on the field trip to Kilburn

Montage of Kilburn High Road using pictures taken by the author

At the end of October 2014, I accompanied 140 students in their first year of studying geography at the University of Exeter on a field trip to London to put into practise some of what they have learned so far on the BA Geography course. While many of the activities were located in central London locations, including Hyde Park and the V&A museum, all 140 students also visited Kilburn. You may ask: Why? Obvious answers would include that ‘it’s a diverse area’, with which you may or may not agree. Then again, as Zadie Smith argued, at the launch of her novel “NW”: “But that is only the dullest thing that can be said about Kilburn, that’s it’s so ‘diverse’.”

We took the students to Kilburn for a number of reasons: that it is precisely not ‘central London’ but still has carries the attributes of being situated within a ‘world city’ like London; that immigration has helped shape Kilburn in interesting ways; that the High Road marks a boundary, between Brent and Camden; and, significantly for me at least, because Kilburn has previously been an inspiration to the geographer Doreen Massey.

In her 1991 article “A Global Sense of Place”, Massey uses the narrative of a walk down Kilburn High Road to illustrate the various ways we can understand feelings of place not as territories encompassed by boundaries but instead as ‘articulated moments in networks of social relations’. It is the vitality and the various movements, the comings and goings of shoppers, families, locals and visitors alike, the businesses opening and closing: all of these connections through space AND time that come to make up our sense of place. This is the shared ‘Kilburnosity’ about which Zadie Smith writes. For Massey, places – and Kilburn in particular – are not solely local. The global threads through the local (producing those movements of people, money and goods) and, in the same way, the local builds the global.

The students enjoyed their brief exposure to ‘Kilburnosity’ and I enjoyed the questions Kilburn prompted them to begin to ask of themselves in the process: of how ‘places’ get continually made and of our various roles in that process. I think we all began to see why Zadie Smith boldly stated: “I’d rather walk down Kilburn High Road than the King’s Road – than any road in London. For selfish reasons: there’s so much more to see, and hear.”

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