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How the rich destroyed Notting Hill Twenty five years after the film, it has been hollowed out


May 21, 2024   5 mins

I have a Notting Hill story: a housing story. I lived in a walk-up studio on Palace Court at the turn of the millennium and, when I was late with my rent, my landlord sexually assaulted me, and I said nothing, but I paid the following month on time. I wonder if that is a typical Notting Hill story, so common I almost forgot it myself.

But Notting Hill is two cities with two kinds of stories, the dreamlike and the deadly. One Notting Hill contains residents who paid more capital gains tax than three major British cities in 2020; in the other, looms Grenfell Tower, swaddled in rippling tarpaulin. These two depend on each other, because you only need a dreamworld if reality is unjust. Nowhere else in London is so polarised, or practices self-worship like this.

The most famous Notting Hill story is the one by Richard Curtis, which turns 25 today. Curtis is an affable man who can’t look at the world without trying to turn it into something it isn’t: an entirely benevolent place. He has lived in Notting Hill, and he made it an object, like a man writing a love letter to his sofa. His Notting Hill is a retelling of Cinderella with William Thacker (Hugh Grant) as the maidservant and Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) as the prince — now a film star; what’s the difference? They are both thwarted artists (he can’t sell books; her films are terrible) and neither seems to know if they are humble or grandiose or if they want to live in fiction or reality.

Notting Hill feels the same way —more wax-work garden than place — and is the ideal setting for this self-pitying, consumer capitalist love affair, which reaches a climax when Anna gives Thacker a Chagall. Here, on a Saturday morning, the market is swagged for its six million annual visitors. It is a crush, which happens when you hollow out London, put all the wisteria in one place, and write a vapid, world-famous fairy tale about it.

“Notting Hill is where the architects of Austerity lived: it is also the site of its calamity.”

I am posing as a vapid fan on a Notting Hill film tour. Because my fellow fans are foreign tourists — Gucci-heavy Italians, exhausted Israelis, and an ethics professor from Michigan — their first question to the young guide is: do you live here? I repress a snort as she says that she lives in the western suburbs of London, because I knew that.

The idea that Notting Hill is an authentic London is powerful: because cinema says so, we believe that ordinary children walk these streets, though they don’t. The Phoenix Cinema, which appeared in Notting Hill is now an art gallery filled with Victoriana: that is, it has stopped screening a fake London, and has become the set of one instead. This is a film-maker’s ideal: a brightened Victorian slum filled with happy Victorian children, a Dickensian stage without Dickensian ideas. It’s true that Portobello Road — named for a battle in Panama — was once like this. Notting Hill’s gentrification is tidal: the rich come in, leave, and return, and the poor take up whatever space is left to serve them. But we are at the top of the curve: a terraced house on Chepstow Villas is £15 million now, and the only working-class people who own houses in Notting Hill have lived here since the Sixties.

I meet a greengrocer with a flat in Blenheim Crescent. Her father was in Notting Hill, she says, in a yellow shirt, and when she misses him, she watches it. Notting Hill was more fun in the Sixties, she adds, when everyone was on LSD, and I don’t doubt it: actresses manned stalls when they were resting. The market traders are fearful that the market will be shrunk, to make it more like Soho. The market and the carnival are always under threat, being remnants of working-class culture but the traders have bought into the dream world too. One tells me: “It [the market] creeps under your skin, and you come to love this untidy little creature, it becomes part of you.” He sounds like Bert in Mary Poppins, or Richard Curtis himself, if he had given a working-class Londoner a leading role in Notting Hill, which of course he didn’t. It famously had no black characters, though this was a Caribbean district, and you can see the remnants to the north: Jay Dees Catering and Caribbean Take-Away and People’s Sound. Curtis held a looking glass up and saw only himself.

Probably unconsciously, our guide tells us a joke. She pauses by Banksy’s “Made You Look” (2006, it’s the title in scrabble tiles) on the wall of an ugly modernist house. She says the owner interrupted the graffiti artist and was told that if he went back to sleep, he would wake up to a more valuable house. This is Banksy the anti-war anti-Capitalist as Rumpelstiltskin, weaving straw into gold for the already rich. George Orwell’s house is opposite, and I wonder what he would say to Banksy’s intervention. But capitalist activism is popular here: Conscience Kitchen, for instance, on All Saints’ Road.

Thacker’s Travel Bookshop was inspired by the Notting Hill Bookshop in Blenheim Crescent. Tourists mass round it, taking photographs of themselves. “Notting Hill feels like a film set,” a local woman tells me, “because so many people are taking photographs all the time.” “It’s like a cult,” says another. The shop is packed but almost no one is buying a book. Perhaps they don’t need one since, being in fiction. Instead, they buy canvas bags that say Notting Hill to prove they came here and write love letters, which are posted on the cork board: “Dear reader it was like a dream to enter the store after watching the movie.” We visit the blue door of Thacker’s home. It isn’t the real door: that was auctioned for charity.

You can’t buy a home here, but you can buy an idea. Notting Hill, one tells me, “is huge in China”. Biscuiteers “Biscuit Boutique and Icing Café” has an entire biscuit London in the window, because the more uninhabitable London becomes for the average person the more it is finessed into an aesthetic or, here, biscuit. A ginger-bread resident is £7.95, and you can buy a biscuit pencil to write a biscuit novel.

At the end of Portobello Road is the pub where the murder in Martin Amis’s London Fields was planned: in the novel, the Black Cross; in life, the Golden Cross. It is now, inevitably, a sushi bar, but it is still sticky with alcoholism, which is oblivious to newer dream worlds, having one of its own already, and it is my favourite place on Portobello Road.

“Being a resident from a working-class background we say Ladbroke Grove,” a man tells me, pointedly. (Like all dream worlds, the boundaries of Notting Hill are vague and sinuous). He says calling it Notting Hill, “does bother me. Because of everything that comes with Notting Hill. The working class will be moved out, and the history will be rewritten in a heartbeat. I don’t think tourists truly grasp that.”

The charmed rich tend to destroy what they think they love: they can’t help it. John from Portobello Camera under the Westway says: “So-called people,” — he means the charmed rich — “don’t want nothing to do with the carnival. The very thing they love about the area they don’t want to participate in. They board up their property, lock it down, and fly away. They want to pick their social menu.”

I head north to the Grenfell Tower and the memorial to the 72 dead. It isn’t much. The memorial is a board by a school, shockingly close to the ruin itself, and a mirror to the corkboard in the Notting Hill Bookshop. “Five years, no justice,” it says. [It’s seven years now]. “We will never forget all these lives lost for what? £££! Your lives ALL matter no matter what age, colour, or creed. JUSTICE FOR GRENFELL.” “Fuck the Tories”. “Poor quality housing kills too”. “You all deserved so much better”. “Missing you is a never—ending sorrow”.

Notting Hill is where the architects of Austerity lived: it is also the site of its calamity. “Could Grenfell have happened elsewhere?” a man asks me. He answers his own question. “In other parts of Kensington and Chelsea, definitely not.” This part of Notting Hill ripples with fury: there are makeshift memorials in scrubby gardens, and on walls. I find a list of 18 children who died in the fire, one still born. Even so — or, rather, for this reason — dream Notting Hill is winning, being pretty, better funded, and a movie star.


Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.

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Jack Robertson
Jack Robertson
29 days ago

Elegantly caustic. Truly fabulous writing. Ta.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
29 days ago

Very much enjoyed the article but why is there a need for “authenticity” to be working-class? The lady with a Flat in Blenheim Crescent is sitting on a pile of cash, not to mention the working-class who sold up to live fantastic lives on the proceeds of their houses bought for nothing in earlier decades. Maybe they aren’t authentic enough for the author. It would have been interesting to see what those people thought of the area. Also, the claim that Notting Hill is a Caribbean district when only 2.3% of the entire borough identifies as such is spurious – the same sort of fantasy that the author decries in others. The carnival has always been more of a gathering of people than a local expression of Caribbean culture; government-run, nationally televised from the beginning, I could go on. Nothing wrong with this but it shows the desire for Notting Hill fantasy is not merely held by Richard Curtis and his ilk. More links would have been nice to illustrate points/claims. More please Unherd.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
29 days ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

“The carnival has always been more of a gathering of people than a local expression of Caribbean culture; government-run, nationally televised from the beginning.” It was started by West Indians as part of their culture and as a distraction from the violence they faced in the 50s. With no government money. The transformation into a broader, funded event happened decades later.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
29 days ago

This is what the modern-day event would have you believe. Check out the history of the Carribean Carnival of 1959 which was later rebranded to be less authentically Caribbean-centric into a generalised “Notting Hill Carnival”. It isn’t a secret history. I agree that it was started in opposition to racial violence.

Matt M
Matt M
29 days ago

If you want to get away from violence I can think of better ways to do it than attending the Notting Hill Stabbing Carnival.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
28 days ago

I don’t get how a notoriously violent event is in any way a distraction from violence, unless the dissatisfaction at the violence is because they expected to be the ones handing it out rather than receiving it.
If they didn’t like it, they could always have just gone home. Nobody invited them (the Windrush myth was always a big, leftist lie).

J. Hale
J. Hale
28 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Yeah, I agree. Britain lost far more men in WWI than in WWII, and yet there was no “need” for mass immigration after WWI. Makes me suspicious of the Windrush myth.

Tony Price
Tony Price
29 days ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

Perhaps you should read more carefully, she says “this was a Caribbean district” – note the past tense.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
29 days ago
Reply to  Tony Price

My point is that it never was, apologies for the misquote.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
28 days ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

The market remains a total ripoff. I was there the other week for the first time in 40 years. At a used bookseller I found a first edition of Ian Fleming’s “You Only Live Twice”. I sort of collect readable first-eds, so I looked at the price and he wanted £400. A look on Abebooks showed the going rate to be £30.
I hate this ludicrous nostalgia porn for the grand old times, when these places were charmingly scruffy, full of plebs and therefore somehow better. Notting Hill is and always has been a total ǝloɥʇᴉɥs, notable only for the most violent and lawless street event in the country. But you just know that in 40 years’ time another Tanya will be along to say how great the Portobello Road was when you could still buy James Bond first editions there.

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
29 days ago

I think that experts agree that the rich and the poor wreck neighborhoods in big cities. Experts also agree that the solid middle class and the solid working class are good for neighborhoods.
Then there is White Van Man. I don’t think the experts agree on him.
The Gardiners lived near Cheapside. Miss Bingley did not approve.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
29 days ago

It was also an awful film.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
28 days ago

Funny, I lived in the town where the Robin Williams “Jumanji” was made. Shrug. My kids live in LA, where tons of movies are made. Another shrug. Seems odd that a little romcom from the 90s would have such a huge impact.

Paul T
Paul T
28 days ago

it didn’t; this article is an envious and spiteful projection.

Toby Poynder
Toby Poynder
28 days ago

Coronet cinema not the Phoenix wasn’t it? The Phoenix is in East Finchley.

John Potts
John Potts
28 days ago

In the 70s when I lived in NW6 (a bit up the road), we never referred to going to “Notting Hill” but rather to “Notting Hill Gate” (which is the name of the tube station). For me personally, it was a dog leg on the route of the 28 down into Kensington Church Street. Those happy days – spent in pubs with not a sushi bar in sight.
Quintessence (remember them?) had a song called Notting Hill Gate. Not a very good song.
As the man interviewed remarked, Ladbroke Grove was the neighbourhood – “Notting Hill” per se wasn’t, at least not for me.

Geraldine Kelley
Geraldine Kelley
28 days ago
Reply to  John Potts

I agree. My parents were offered a flat in Chepstow Villas for sale in the 50s and, after going to view the area, my mother refused to move from Putney because Notting Hill Gate looked too rough and run-down!

Perry de Havilland
Perry de Havilland
28 days ago

“These two depend on each other, because you only need a dreamworld if reality is unjust.”

Fixed Quantity of Wealth fallacy detected

Notting Hill is where the architects of Austerity lived

“Austerity” meaning the percentage of state spending in the economy has *increased* slightly slower under the Blue Blairites than it would have increased under the Red Blairites.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
28 days ago

This is entrancingly bitter.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
28 days ago

I was born and spent my early childhood in Notting Hill during the late 1970s and early 80s. The buildings and the market are still there, but the vibe has changed. Portobello Market is now a crowded antiques market for unadventurous tourists. The actual market where you could buy cheap knock-off jewelry, toys, and clothes has all but disappeared. There used to be so many fish and chips, and fried egg and bacon cafes with their sticky red squeezy bottles of tomato ketchup and brown sauce, where the stall holders used to eat and read their newspapers. Portobello Market was dirty back then but lively. I remember the groups of Rastafarians blasting reggae from their ghettoblasters at the Meanwhile Gardens and the smell of cannabis that hung in lazy clouds over them during hot summer days. There were punks too with their spiky hair, studs, and safety pins. The skin-heads were the worst with their Doc Martins and sw*stikas. I remember a group of them approaching my mother one day when she walked me to school and her hand clenching mine in fear. Days later, we would hear about how they doused a four-year old in petrol and set fire to him at the nearby Mozart Estate which always stank of stale urine. Over it all loomed Trellick Tower, that imposing monument to Brutalist architecture watching over us like some dark ancient-world colossus.
I remember it changing in the mid-80s. The yuppies came and then the muslims. The old warehouses along the Grand Union Canal got knocked down to make room for luxury apartments. The greasy spoon cafes were replaced by vegan brunch rooms and boutique stores. It got gentrified in the end with the poorer people migrating to more affordable places like Milton Keynes, Slough and Peterborough.

Paul T
Paul T
28 days ago

So, a sushi bar is your favourite place on Portobello Road. You couldn’t say more about yourself with a single sentence if you tried; this whole article stinks of it.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
28 days ago

Early 70s carnival was peaceful. My friend and I even marched with the steelbands. And why not, says you. Finch’s pub a good hangout with undercover cops waiting in a Beetle around the corner to nab joint users. The Electric Cinema where I was educated in things beyond these shores. They had a late night show where another friend and I busked. He on mandolin, me shaking the cap. We got enough for the entrance and goodies.
Impromptu concerts in Powis Square (were Hawkwind a local band as well?) We put on a production of Noonday Demons(Peter Barnes?) on a raised platform under the arches. Some crack (the Irish meaning!). Ah, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be…

Paul T
Paul T
28 days ago

You missed out “vibrant”.
Let’s not forget that these beautiful stucco buildings were not built for poor people to live in. They were built for rich people but, no doubt Ms Gold would be cheering this on, rent controls destroyed the area so that the vibrancy was forced on them in slum-like conditions.
It hasn’t been gentrified; it has been repaired.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
22 days ago

I grew up in Notting Hill between 1954 and the late 1960s. Like most people in this working class area we – that is myself, my parents and 2 sisters lived in one room – before the tenement building we lived in was compulsorily purchased from the owner and we were moved to a council estate in West London. I don’t really recognize this description of the area. Up until the 60s it was a white British working class area with a fair number of Irish, Polish, French, Jewish and even German inhabitants (my parents remained friends with the German couple until my mother died last year). It was a great place to grow up with a great community spirit, children playing in the streets, literally in the middle of the road. There were of course the anti-black riots during that period and the curfews which went with them. This was due to the pretty massive cultural difference between the black incomers and the existing inhabitants.