Deciding to write a book on Portobello Road, where would local resident Julian Mash begin, wonders Lisa Hedlund? It all starts with a film…
Surrounded by beautiful fabric-bound books in The Idler Academy in Notting Hill, it’s the perfect location to sit down and talk to Manager Julian Mash. He also happens to be an author, with a new book – Portobello Road: Lives of a Neighbourhood – out this month.
The Idler Academy is the perfect location not only because of its local importance, but also because it isn’t the only bookstore that Julian has worked it. Indeed, that bookstore, The Travel Bookshop, not only inspired him to write Portobello Road, but was also the inspiration for one of the most well known romantic comedies in the world: Notting Hill. ‘I started working there in about 2007, and I was shocked at the amount of tourists that were coming in because of the film,’ he explains. ‘I was aware of the film, I’d seen it, but I had no idea that it was still such a popular attraction. You’d see tourists flooding in every day asking, “Is this the shop from the movie, Notting Hill?” and getting really excited about it – and they were ignoring the fact that it was just a fantastic bookshop in its own right.’
Sadly, despite its reputation, The Travel Bookshop went out of business at the end of 2011, but as a result this left Julian with enough free time to go travelling – throughout the neighbourhood. Armed with his trusty recorder, he set about collecting various anecdotes about Notting Hill from the past 50 years to compile together for his book. ‘I wanted to show people that this film was just a tiny little thing that happened in the rich history of Notting Hill and Portobello Road. It’s seen so much over the past 50 years, that I wanted to tell even part of that story,’ he says passionately. ‘The pace of change that I was seeing was one of the motivations for writing the book. I’ve lived here for ten years, and even in that time there have been big changes. I spoke to people who have been third and fourth generation fruit and vegetable traders, through to musicians like Damon Albarn, who’s been using Portobello Road and Notting Hill in his music with Blur and Gorillaz. So it’s an incredibly fertile area – the real challenge was putting that all into a book.’
The snapshots that Julian has collected from talking to the locals ranged from a wide array of issues and events, from race riots and the birth of the Notting Hill Carnival, to the rise of counter culture, health food and punk, and the beginnings of vintage fashion.
Although these snapshots depict the vibrant history, the worrying theme that appeared over and over in his interviews was the fear that Notting Hill was beginning to lose what makes it special, especially in terms of the market. One of the most saddening issues was the fact that many of the older families who have sold items at the markets for generations are having to leave due to high costs.
One of the main culprits that people point when talking about the changes in Notting Hill, especially with the rising costs of living and working in the area, is Richard Curtis for the film that made the area world renowned. However, Julian strongly disagrees with this belief. ‘A lot of people in a way blame the film for the influx of interest and people to the area, which they then see as driving up the prices, but I don’t think that’s the case. I think it’s an easy moment to pinpoint, because it came out in 1999, which was around the moment where the kind of last wave of this boom began,’ he explains. ‘But Notting Hill was already on the map, so I don’t think you can lay the blame at that particular door. It was happening already, and it just happened to accelerate around then, so there were all sorts of other socio-economic factors, really.’
As for Portobello Road, Julian says that it is not simply for a niche market of locals or history buffs, but for anyone who has any interest in Notting Hill and wants to find out more about it. ‘I hope it will appeal to people who live around here and are already interested in the history of the area, and perhaps already know some of the people in the book, through to those casually interested people who have heard of Notting Hill, or Portobello Road. You’ve got music, fashion, health food, racial integration, the Carnival… There’s so much here!’ And Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts are not even in sight.
Portobello Road: Lives of a Neighbourhood by Julian Mash is published on 19 June, priced at £16.99
A stand out story…
For Julian, one of the most unexpected and fascinating stories to come out of his research was about a woman called Eleonore Mann, who was a solicitor on Portobello Road for 25 years from the mid-60s till 1981. Eleonore was a German-born Jewish refugee who was forced to flee Nazi Germany after becoming the fifth woman to qualify as a Doctor of Law at that point in time. She then retrained as a solicitor during the 1950s, and worked hard to help the disadvantaged population of Notting Hill, from tenant disputes to domestic violence cases. ‘I think she was a real radical, a feminist, and she represented women in all sorts of issues like domestic violence and problems at work. This was the mid-60s into the late-60s before the law centres were set up, and before women’s refuges existed,’ Julian says. ‘It was really amazing to hear about her life and how she ended up on Portobello Road, and how she really helped the community. It was one of those stories where I had no idea how it was going to pan out, but what came out really surprised me.’