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.


  1. It sounds like a great book. I don't live in W11 (but I am not too far as you know). I recognise what you describe: London is becoming less and less affordable. But somehow it remains London. And I like it. I have caught the London bug.

    1. You're right, I think some of the same processes are definitely happening nearer you too, Muriel. But then they're happening all over the city...

      But when you're part of a neighbourhood you can still see the positive changes as well as the negatives. And it sounds like you get that now you're a Londoner yourself!


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