Author Adam Jacot de Boinod explores why the neighbourhood of Notting Hill has often served as a helpful muse for so many British writers
There must be over fifty published authors currently living in Notting Hill. There are also a huge number of literary agencies in the area (including Rogers, Coleridge & White and David Grossman), numerous bookshops (selling either new, such as Lutyens and Rubinstein, or second-hand at Oxfam Books). Not to mention the monthly events and talks at The Tabernacle (housing both 5×15 and Bookslam). In April 2013, Notting Hill played host to its first literary festival in the form of Nibfest. The private gardens, the stuccoed houses, the ethnic communities and general London life have shaped and coloured the writings of many of the area’s inhabitants.
The ups and downs of Notting Hill’s residential appeal have also been well attested to over the years. It has been a natural literary progression from a tradition that started as early as the latter part of the 18th Century. From the Georgian era came Lady Mary Coke who lived at Aubrey House in Holland Park. In her journals and letters, she talks of the area’s ‘roses and honeysuckles’. The Victorian era ushered in Welsh author Arthur Machen on Clarendon Road. He referred to the area due north from him as ‘obscure to me and a sort of nightmare… a canal which seemed to cross my path in a manner contrary to the laws of reason. I turn a corner and am confronted with an awful cemetery, a terrible city of white gravestones and shattered marble pillars and granite urns, and every sort of horrid heathenry’. To Arthur, Maida Vale was ‘treacherous’ and Paddington ‘false’.
And yet in Edwardian 1904 came the author and poet GK Chesterton with his famous novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill, a place he depicted as containing ‘the essentials of a civilization, a chemist’s shop, a bookshop, a provision merchant for food and a public house for drink.’
The ravages of World War II are reflected by Vere Hodgson of Ladbroke Road in her diaries, titled Few Eggs and no Oranges which observed ‘there were 38 bombs on Kensington last Saturday night during two hours… no wonder we were kept diving under the table’. The poverty of the post-war years in Notting Hill is expressed bleakly by Alan Johnson in his recent childhood memoir This Boy. And in Jonathan Raban’s Soft City, when referring to Ladbroke Grove, talks of ‘bedsitter industries like stringing beads or making candles’. He then makes the insightful observation, ‘Notting Hill incorporates a central paradox of city life, in that its nature is as prolific and untameable as anywhere in London, yet for some at least of its inhabitants it has been accommodated to an order so benign as to be cosy’.
Then came the bohemian 80s and trustafarian 90s. Martin Amis, who spent much of his youth in Notting Hill, famously incorporated the area into Money (1984) and London Fields (1989), where it was envisioned as a site of urban decay. The Portobello Road of London Fields was ‘scruffed and frayed, falling apart, and full of rats.’
The dramatist Mustafa Matura in 1993 said, ‘I have seen Ladbroke Grove pass through many phases since’ the Swinging Sixties, attracting those in search of its liberating lifestyles… some good, some bad: hippy, punk, radical chic, rasta, bourgeois respectability’. As the century turned the area’s newer, wealthy residents were satirised in Rachel Johnson’s novel Notting Hell (2006). In Alan Hollingshurst’s Booker Prize winning The Line of Beauty, the home of the fictional Fedden family is located in the grand Kensington Park Gardens.
With I Take You, described as a modern-day take on Lady Chatterley’s Lover, set in Notting Hill, Australian-born but London-based writer Nikki Gemmell describes the area in terms of two colours, white and green: ‘white from those lovely rows of stately terraces – the London of Henry James and prams wheeled by nannies in parks… from the cherry blossoms in the early spring that floated down to the roads like tissue paper snow.
‘Green, from the awning of the deli on Elgin Crescent that’s crammed with goodies… from the coolness of the beautiful communal gardens, empty, languid and dank in the heat’.
‘What I love about Notting Hill’ says Nikki Gemmell, ‘is that I know the lady at the fruit stall on Portobello Road who sells me mangoes and peaches, and calls me darlin’, no matter how wet and cold the day has been or how long she’s been standing out in it’.
In 2013 and again in 2014, two book releases found common ground in their exploration of Portobello Road’s history using locally-sourced anecdotes. The campaign for the future of Portobello Market is the message behind Blanche Girouard’s thoughtful book Portobello Voices, a collection of interviews with the costermongers and antique sellers, celebrating the unique qualities both of the street and the characters that keep it alive and real. And for Portobello Road: Lives of a Neighbourhood Julian Marsh, a former employee of The Travel Bookshop, charts 50 years of Portobello life. Through interviews with more than 60 local residents, Julian enters a world of Teddy Boy gangs, race riots and an independent music scene.
More than most neighbourhoods, Notting Hill it seems attracts writers from all walks of life, with beady eyes and willing pens, ready to record their vision of west London.
Adam Jacot de Boinod has lived in Notting Hill for the last thirty years. He is the author of The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from around the World and creator of the iPhone App Tingo, a quiz about unusual words