Litro #147: Space – Notting Hill

Litro #147: Space – Notting Hill
Nottinghill

Photo by @jmlostboys

I consider myself a Londoner. I was born in St Thomas’ hospital and I’ve lived in London for the last twenty years – first in Shepherd’s Bush, then Tottenham, Elephant and Castle, Earl’s Court, Whitechapel, Elephant and Castle (again!), Stockwell and, for the last four years, in Notting Hill, first on Ladbroke Grove and now Westbourne Grove. If I belong anywhere, it’s London – indeed, it’s always with a sense of relief that I return to the city. Within London it’s the west where I’ve spent the most time, where I’ve worked in various jobs and where, I suppose, I feel most at home. Within west London, Notting Hill always had the biggest attraction for me. Ever since I wanted to live in London, I wanted to live in Notting Hill. Now, I’m not quite sure why the area has such an appeal – sure, it’s a convenient location and a beautiful, self-contained neighbourhood – but that doesn’t seem to be the entire reason.

Although born in Lambeth, I grew up in the boring confines of the commuter belt, first Surrey and then Kent: homogenous, affluent, suburban places where almost everyone is white and votes Conservative. Comfortable places that seem sheltered from the wider troubles of the world. Notting Hill, in contrast, always struck me as a place where things happened and – perhaps more so – where the people who made things happen actually live. But Notting Hill is not quite what it was and my own connection to the area is a transitory one – much as I might want to put down roots here, I simply can’t afford to. Like most of central London, Notting Hill has shifted from being a space of genuine diversity to become another domain for the super-rich – in which a bland, globalised cosmopolitanism has replaced genuine heterogeneity.

Back in the nineties, when things were different, I was first seduced by Notting Hill during long walks around west London. There was a flourishing counter culture among the hippie shops selling incense, trinkets and psychedelic clothing, the record shops booming out dub basslines and soulful grooves, the independent bookshops and antique dealers with everything from vintage prints to silver spoon collections to World War One gas masks; and the rest, market stalls selling everything from rare fruit and veg to knock off household goods, a scene made all the more dynamic due to the mixed population of Caribbean and Irish, Moroccans, Portuguese and long-time white working class locals, everyone rubbing along together happily enough, wealthier residents to the south, poorer to the north. Notting Hill really seemed to encapsulate everything that was unique and exciting about London. It seemed to me the perfect urban environment – edgy, diverse, bohemian – but also manageable, with a sense of community, with lovely architecture and delightful streets. It was a place where I could wander for hours, soaking up the atmosphere, enjoying the vibe.

Nowadays, everything about Notting Hill that first drew me to Notting Hill is still present and correct. Take a walk down Portobello Road and one could be forgiven for thinking Notting Hill is in rude good health. Certainly, the Portobello is always heaving – albeit with tourists more than locals. At the weekend tens of thousands of visitors flock to the market in a slow shuffle of crowds that stretches continuously from the tube platforms all the way along Portobello up to Goldborne Road. Tourists often stop and ask me, “Where is Hugh Grant house? Where is Julia Roberts garden?” so I suppose Richard Curtis’ rather kitsch take on the area still sucks in the crowds even I have to tell them bookshop doesn’t exist and that the communal gardens are not only private but almost invisible from the road. Either way, Notting Hill is in all the guidebooks and for some tourists – particularly Italians (perhaps they like the Italianate name) – Portobello is among London’s major attractions.

But a quick look at what has happened to all the pubs in Notting Hill and a slightly different picture emerges. I’ve often thought of pubs as the coral reefs of an urban ecosystem. Their quality, variety, and pedigree can reveal a great deal about the underlying condition of the surrounding district. About a year ago, I noticed that two of the neighbourhoods remaining old pubs had closed down to be ‘redeveloped.’ This is not unusual. Indeed, every single pub, from the oldest – the Prince Albert at Notting Hill Gate (built in 1841) – has now been developed in such a way that although they might still ‘look’ like a pub, what they actually offer is more like an upscale dining experience. We see the same with the Bonaparte on Chepstow Road, the Red Lemon on All Saints, The Elgin on Ladbroke Grove and others including the Portobello Gold, the Duke of Wellington and the First Floor on Portobello itself.

It seems to me that the transformation-preservation of these establishments is indicative of the deeper transformation of Notting Hill, the way a façade or appearance has been kept intact implying continuity and a connection with the areas’ roots while tastefully hiding the fact that all these pubs are part of a chain owned by large corporations. The fate of the Market tavern, further down Portobello, is indicative. The pub closed for redevelopment last spring and for months the site was being refurbished. Someone even scrawled on the building, ‘fuck off Boris and your posh shops, bring back our pub.’ Unfortunately, the pub didn’t come back and an upmarket ‘saki lounge’ has replaced it. It seems hard to imagine that any of the regulars of the old pub will want to go there or that this new place will even last for long: indeed, the turnover of shops and restaurants has escalated due to rising rents, the same upmarket chains – Starbucks, All Saints, American Apparel, Vodaphone – gradually replacing the more individual and idiosyncratic shops. A Sainsbury’s ‘Local’ also opened on Portobello, right in the middle of the fruit and veg market, like a deliberate challenge to the stallholders. Another supermarket is the last thing Notting Hill needs: within a one kilometre radius are two more Sainsbury’s locals and at least three Tescos, a mini Waitrose and a Marks and Spencer’s.

A similar story a couple of blocks west to Ladbroke Grove and the famous Kensington Park Hotel pub – with a long list of notorious customers (including serial killers and fascist leader Oswald Mosley) – is also under threat. For a long time this pub, which dates back to the 1860s, was one of the few un-gentrified establishments in Notting Hill, retaining a scruffier, old fashioned atmosphere: it was what I would call “an old man pub” the sort of place where faded gents living off their pensions and lonely widowers could be seen enjoying a pint and the papers at eleven in the morning, stepping out to smoke, to have a chat and blink at the rest of the day. An ungentrified space, in other words: a place for people who don’t work in finance or new media, a remnant of old Notting Hill. But I suppose these sorts of establishments don’t make enough money “or maximise their revenue potential” so the KPH was bought out and put under new management by the Mean Fiddler group and underwent a complete refurbishment. Now elegant lettering in the window advertises ‘gourmet hot dogs’ ‘artisan coffee’ and ‘wi-fi’ and it seems as if much of the old crowd have gone. But at least it’s still a pub and it’s still called the KPH: apparently even this is at risk, with the council recently forced to take measures to preserve its status and prevent the site being re-developed once again, this time as flats.

I’m only able to live in Notting Hill because I’m very, very lucky and live in my father in laws pied a terre. My father in law bought a house in Notting Hill in the seventies when the area was still rough and cheap, finally selling in 2005. My wife is a ‘native’ of Notting Hill and his lived here her whole life – although it seems impossible that this will continue forever. With one bedroom flats often selling for more than a million pounds only the rich can afford to settle here now.
As a result I see the same thing happening to houses as has happened to the pubs. Larger stucco mansions – sub-divided into cheap bedsits in the 1960s and 1970s – are bought up (often by property developers or mysterious ‘off-shore’ companies) to sit empty and neglected, sometimes for years, before the new owner decides what should be done with it. The first activity – wooden boards will surround the house, demarcating the area – and then, digging, demolishing, drilling, building behind and under, sometimes gutting the entire structure, just the façade left, the two dimensional face of the house, windows open to empty sky, walls propped up with scaffolding, huge drills and towering cranes appearing, ridiculous and extravagant assemblages for a single house: but the property is undergoing a metamorphosis, it is becoming an iceberg house, bigger below than above, with multiple underground levels including swimming pools and gymnasiums, media rooms, home cinemas, underground stacking garages for luxury cars, even panic rooms. The work can take years and the property will double in value. On some of the most desirable streets – such as Pembridge Place – where vast stucco properties can sell for £30 or £40 million I witness a sort of demented merry-go-round as house after house is upgraded. No sooner is one ‘finished’ than work starts on its neighbour. Last time I counted, half the houses on this particular street were either being redeveloped, about to be developed or had just been developed. Of course, the owners never really live there. Walk around at night and the streets are eerily empty, parking bays unoccupied, windows dark. The super-rich owners have many properties, have only bought in London because they know it’s a good return on their investment: they have zero connection to the neighbourhood although their patronage ensures more designer boutiques on Westbourne Grove and fewer and fewer normal shops. It’s easier to buy a hand bag for £500 than a pint of milk. Most of the flats in the block where I live are empty most of the time: residents are Russian, Chinese, Spanish, French and change continuously. I sometimes think my wife and I are the only people who really live here and no, we never speak to (or even see) our neighbours.

I still love Notting Hill though; its flaws have their own strange beauty and fascinate me. I set my first novel, Lost Boys, here precisely because it’s a place where different worlds collide. The poor might be getting pushed out, might be more invisible than before, but they’re still here, not that the rich residents ever need to venture into the council estates that hug the westway and the railway lines. There is also a hallucinogenic beauty to Notting Hill: in the late afternoon sunshine the white and brightly painted houses glow gold and the communal gardens, many the size of a small park, beckon like magical, secret worlds, lush and abundant. This year might have been the last when I will have been able to enjoy carnival on my doorstep, the entire building vibrating with the boom of sound systems on passing floats. It’s messy, chaotic, liberating and wonderful: the rich residents flee to their second (third or fourth) homes and a small bit of the old Notting Hill returns. I love it and, I suspect, I’ll always love Notting Hill.

James Miller is the author of the acclaimed novels LOST BOYS (Little, Brown 2008) and SUNSHINE STATE (Little, Brown 2010) as well as numerous short stories. He is currently senior lecturer in English literature and Creative Writing at Kingston.

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