a city through the eyes of a girl who's not sure how she ended up here

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Accidental Reads: Portobello Road - Lives of a Neighbourhood

I have just finished reading one of those books you never want to end. I whistled through its pages in the space of two days. It was the kind of book I wish I could write about this city - the history of an area, a single street in fact, told through the stories of the individuals that made it the place it is. Portobello Road in Notting Hill is known to many as a tourist-filled market, a place to buy knock-off vintage clothing. It is a candy-coloured strip of houses and stalls, a place to potter lazily at weekends. 

But there is so much more to this single road than the average visitor will ever discover. The book I have regretfully just finished - 'Portobello Road: Lives of a Neighbourhood' - explores the people who live and work on and around the road, the industries which thrive along it, and the processes of evolution that have transformed this little pocket of West London over the past fifty years or so. The author, Julian Mash, once sold books at the Travel Bookshop - the inspiration for Hugh Grant's bookshop in the film 'Notting Hill' - and has watched the area change over the years. Economically and socially, Portobello Road has experienced plenty of shocks and stresses, from rent increases to the arrival of new breeds of home-owners. The Travel Bookshop was itself a casualty of these rent hikes, and, when it folded, Mash found himself unemployed and disheartened about the area he had known and worked in for so many years. But despite this unfortunate starting point, his book is an engaging and lively tale of change, people and cityscapes.
My own copy of 'Portobello Road', already looking a little well-read* and stuffed with markers to remind me to revisit beautiful quotes and facts (*grubby)
'Portobello Road' whisks the reader along the famous market, in and out of various stall-holders' lives. It  introduces them to the origins and evolution of Notting Hill Carnival; "the ultimate street party", sadly now more remarkable for the number of police officers in attendance and the mind-bending practice of local home-owners renting out their bathrooms to carnival-goers for £5 a wee, than for the fantastic music, costumes and food. The narrative dips in and out of the squats and studios in which some of London's proudest bands lived, wrote and played. And finally the book investigates the property market - the industry often blamed for altering the landscape and demographics of the area. Former doss-houses are being converted into multi-million pound dwellings for foreign investors, who rarely even use them, and fewer and fewer people who work, visit and shop in the area can boast a W11 postcode. Throughout these themes, Mash tells a tale of tension and integration, of people and money, and art and passions.

As Mash sets out, through interviews and research, to write this book and to re-explore the neighbourhood, you feel his initial sadness about the changes in this neighbourhood subside. Lamenting the loss of earlier celebrated heroes of the Portobello Road - Claudia Jones, credited as 'the mother of Caribbean Carnival', for example - he finds plenty more still living and working in and around the neighbourhood. From the dentist-cum-stand-up-comedian to the boxing champion turns grocer, everyone seems to have multiple, diverse strings to their bows in these parts. But they all share a love for the Portobello Road, its patterns of daily life, its community, and its grimy, uncomfortable, yet always vibrant, past.

'Portobello Road' has a clear message for readers, Londoners and city-dwellers everywhere. Change in cities is inevitable, and can be both a force for good and bad. But cities and neighbourhoods are only as good as the people who live in them. No planning processes or inexorable inflation can truly destroy a neighbourhood, so long as there are residents who remember what has gone before, and are determined to honour that today.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Accidental Visits: Borough Market without the crowds

Visiting Borough Market is a classic thing to do with visitors in London. Plenty of my friends who've had relations and pals come and stay for a weekend have marched them down to Borough in Southwark to wander and eat on a Saturday morning. They have stocked up on yummy bread and cheese, stuffed themselves with free samples, and brunched on gourmet sausage sandwiches. It's a classic city entertaining move. And I commend them, but I have never been brave enough to do it myself. Borough Market is one of the busiest markets in the city, and Saturday mornings for me are times for peace and quiet, civilised conversation and the first well-deserved skinny cap of the weekend. And I can't be enjoying all that with hundreds of other people jostling me to grab a sample of tapenade on an oatcake. 

The market operates for wholesalers every weekday, but is only open to retail customers (read: normal Londoners and their out-of-town visitors) from Wednesday to Saturday. This Monday afternoon, long after even the morning's wholesale trading had wrapped up, I found myself down near Borough Market, so I popped along for a lonely, peaceful wander around the place...

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Books About Town

London's streets have seen their fair share of pop-up art series in the past few years. We've had elephants (more than once), Easter eggs, and now we have books. Dotted around the city currently are fifty illustrated benches, shaped like open books. This is the Books About Town campaign, launched by the National Literacy Trust earlier this week. It aims to promote reading for fun, as well as learning about London's literary history. Like the elephants and Easter eggs, the benches will be auctioned off to raise funds for the National Literacy Trust, at the end of the summer.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

May and June

What with one thing and another, and working a two month notice period that came to an end with the start of a July, May and June ran into one another somewhat.

1. Way back at the beginning of May, I spent some time back in my one time 'hood of SW3. On a wonderfully mild evening, my cousin and I caught up over dinner, then took a stroll along Chelsea Embankment, over the twinkling Albert Bridge to Battersea Park. It feel like forever since I used to run that route when I was living in Chelsea, while I was between houses, bouncing from sofa-bed to spare room!

2. May and June were music-filled months. I saw two gigs in four days, and they couldn't have been more different. First up was a trip to the O2 Arena for the London leg of the Prismatic Tour, to see Ms Katy Perry in action. (Don't judge! I love her.) The show was one slick operation - endless costume changes, dozens of dancers, elaborate stage sets and a set-list that kept the audience dancing and singing for hours. There's no denying that girl works damn hard for her millions. A few days later, in the more intimate venue of the Islington Assembly Hall, an equally talented lady took to the stage. With only two members in her backing band, and no fancy backdrops or special effects, Sara Bareilles had the whole audience in the palm of her hand for the entirety of her clever, funny, heartfelt set. Two very different ladies, with their very different styles, but both extraordinarily good at doing what they do.

3. Sunny days called for lunchtime breaks in the the squares around Fitzrovia. (If I could find a spot amongst the hundreds of sandwich-eating office workers who'd had the same idea!) My favourite spot is Gordon Square, the former haunt of the Bloomsbury Set; Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Clive Bell, John Maynard Keynes et al.  Oh, and there's now a tiny branch of Viennese cafe, Kipferl, in the Square for a decent coffee and a piece of cake, which makes it an even more tempting spot.

4. The Accidental Boyfriend (now a Holloway resident, like me) and I checked out, and returned to, an excellent new burger and brunch spot at the top of the Holloway Road. I love Holloway, but we're not exactly drowning in perfect places to eat up here, so the Spoke is a very welcome addition to the area. Their pulled pork burger? To. Die. For.

5. At the start of June I had a wonderful weekend away in Amsterdam with my pal and fellow blogger, Lou. We were principally there to run Nike's We Own The Night 10k, but we spent most of our time wandering canals, drinking wine in the sunshine, eating waaaay too much excellent food here and here, and spending hours putting the world to rights.

6. June was also a month for hen parties, as two of my university friends prepare to get married this summer. First up was a weekend in London - taking a ballon-filled boat down the Regents Canal, drinking a lot of Pimms, eating Mexican food washed down with many caipirinhas, and salsa dancing at Floridita. Then, just last weekend, my friends gathered again up in Leeds, for 80s dance lessons, karaoke, dinner and more dancing in our own personal tiki hut. Congratulations, Sarah and Oonagh! Can't wait to help you celebrate some more at your weddings this year.

7. I indulged in expanding my collection of old Penguin paperbacks. I just love the classic design of these books - they look so wonderful on a bookshelf all together. But they're also a fantastic collection of stories, experiences and lives, and the perfect size to slip in a handbag to read on the bus. I discovered an enormous supply of these beloved books at my new favourite secondhand bookstore - Skoob Books in the Brunswick Centre, Bloomsbury. I also discovered a little trove up nearer my house as well: Walden Books between Camden and Kentish Town. I'm going to need some more bookshelves in the coming months...

8. A friend took me to the beautiful Kyoto Garden, hidden inside Holland Park. This is a little Kensington oasis of water and koi carp and indignant peacocks, originally designed by the Chamber of Commerce of Kyoto. It was so peaceful, despite having plenty of tourists and locals checking it out when we visited, that one completely forgot it was a mere stone's throw from bustling High Street Kensington.

9. And then I quit my job. And my mother sent me the greatest leaving card ever in celebration.

Here's to July, dear readers! May it bring you all wonderful things, and some form of gainful employment for me. 

Monday, 30 June 2014

Accidental Visits: The Kyoto Garden in Holland Park

Last Sunday I caught up with my most legitimately London friend. She was born here in the city, and has lived here all her life; besides brief interludes at the school we both attended in Gloucestershire, and the university we also shared up in the North East. We met on Sunday in Kensington (she's such a Londoner that her 'hood is properly central) and took a sunny stroll down to Holland Park. For my friend, Holland Park was a familiar feature of her childhood - and the location of school sports days, she recalled with a shudder. I haven't spent much time in this park at all, bar a brief stay in the brutally hideous youth hostel that sits in the middle of the far prettier gardens, whilst training for an overseas zoological expedition.  

It was a pleasure to return with a local. My friend steered me swiftly past the hoards of toddlers on scooters and picnic-ers, and led me towards the park's hidden Kyoto Garden. The garden has been part of the park since 1991, and was funded (and then maintained annually by a special globe-trotting team of Japanese gardeners for 20 years) by the Chamber of Commerce of Kyoto. It underwent a large replanting and refurbishment in 2001, and in 2012, a year after the catastrophic nuclear disaster at Fukushima, a new section was added to commemorate the event.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Moving on - from a job and a particular corner of London

I moved to London seven years ago this autumn. The January following my move, after an internship and a brief spell of job-hunting and sleeping in various family members' spare rooms, I got my first full-time, no-break-for-university-terms, this-is-what-I'm-now-doing-with-my-time job. It wasn't in my industry of choice, but it would supposedly set me up with some basic office skills that I could later transfer across into my preferred field. Long story short, I still work for the company that first gave me a shot in this city. Three different jobs, six and a half years, seven or eight different desks, and countless projects. Working in one place for several years it is remarkable how easy it becomes to spend the days on autopilot, how quickly one can repeat familiar tasks and make the necessary calls. You can coast through tasks bounded by established processes and management systems. I could have stayed here forever.

And that is one reason why I handed in my resignation last month.
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