Drunken lunch at Costas (2010)
There are times when I want to reach out and hold back the day. Maybe it has something to do mythologizing the past or the basic human longing for a world now vanished?
Yes, the past has slipped out of reach. And there is nothing that we can do to reclaim it, but reflect on loss and the imperfect memories of nostalgia. The past cannot be reconstructed or resuscitated, it is another place, another time, another country.
Newcombe House rising like a gravestone above Notting Hill Gate
That said, I am going to write about it anyway...
Liverpool has been called the center of the consciousness of the human universe, but another much cited hub is Notting Hill in West London. Over the years, I have heard, and read, much about Ladbroke Grove and Portobello Road but next-to-nothing about Notting Hill Gate itself. On the surface, the Gate is concrete, bulky and positively modernist with Campden Hill Towers, Newcombe House and Astley House prominent on the skyline.
Astley House on Notting Hill Gate
Astley House is opposite my street, Linden Gardens. When the building was commissioned in the mid 1950s, the era of post World War 2 reconstruction, it sent author and abstract painter Wyndham Lewis on his unmerry way to Westminster Hospital in 1957.
Wyndham Lewis in the Daily Mail (September 1956)
Lewis, the author of Rotting Hill, was a resident on the Gate from 1937-1957. His studio flat on number 29 was earmarked for demolition by the London County Council (the forerunner of the Greater London Council) who were on a mission to clean up the high street. "The LCC demolition squads are closing in one me with their picks and hammers," he told an interviewer in 1956. Because of right wing leanings in the Nineteen Thirties, Lewis has been amusingly referred to as the literary Hitler of Notting Hill. But when I read Rotting Hill as a teenager, I was struck by the startling imagery of the prose and Lewis's timeless observations.
‘Up on Rotting Hill, beamed on by Negroes, shadowed by Afrikanders, displaced in queues by displaced persons, run over by hasty fiddlers of various extractions, we are foreign (or like a town in the US) and people come and go. The shops are full of xenophobic growlings but there are no bitings. The houses are camps, towering brick camps, with gouged out clammy basements, packed with transients. We are famous for our spivs… The rubbish is still collected Saturdays, but nevertheless the pavements are littered – with Rotting-hillers. Some get stuck in doorways… You must always supply, in your imagination, the jaded bustle of this key locality, the lumbering torrent of trucks and taxis and buses, the parasites’ parade before the bored DPs (Displaced Persons) staring out of the café windows of our overcrowded polyglot hill…’
Rotting Hill was published in 1951 but Lewis could have been writing about the neighborhood in any decade since. Despite the comings and goings of rich and poor, the Gate will always be an "overcrowded polyglot hill" inhabited by spivs, spies and scumbags. As for my own feelings about Wyndham Lewis? He is the poet Prince of Notting Hill Gate! And someone who should always be referred to when talking about the history and psychogeography of the area.
Paul Rhodes Bakery at the top of my road.
But enough about the Hitler of Notting Hill: let's start my stroll down the Gate's ruin of memories and Ghosts of Businesses Past. At the top of my road, is the highfalutin Paul Rhodes Bakery (which used to be an estate agency for many decades). Paul Rhodes is popular with tourists. But fuck them. Over 2000 people live on my road, and a lot of their idiot foreigner customers clog up the thoroughfare. What's more, residents are always bumping into that annoying sign parked outside the premises (pictured). Even though I have food in the house (caviar, smoked salmon, game pie, etc.), I often go to this gaff for a "breakfast bagel" or a chicken, bacon and avocado sandwich. But next time I'm back home, in November, I might boot down that annoying sign.
Next to that is Buy Best, the local Indian store. This used to be Brady's -- run by an Irish family and a useful idiot with greasy hair called Desmond. That was way back in the late 1970s and early 1980s and, suffice to say, those folks are long gone. However, their absence has not stopped me from shopping there for life's daily necessities. And if I wake up in the morning to no blue Rizlas, Benson and Hedges cigarettes, or pint of semi-skimmed milk, Brady's/ Buy Best is my first port of call. The staff are always changing, always grumpy; but that does not hinder any good cheer on my part.
Lampard & Son in 1962
Lampard & Son, the jewellery store, used to be next on the row. With its clunking clock and ribbed black shutters, it was relic of a bygone age, even back in the 1980s. Lampard's didn't seem to do much business and yet it remained open. Then one day, in February 1984, I discovered that the dusky hot punk chick from school -who used to wear kinky boots, fishnet stockings and leather jackets- lived there. Suddenly, my interest perked up. And teenage curiosity led me to gatecrash a raucous party she once hosted at the flat above the shop's premises. Another girl from school, a foxy Goth from my French class, accidentally drank a bottle of amyl nitrate and was rushed to hospital for a stomach pump. Now it is Zen Spa - a high end Chinese therapy center. I got acupuncture there once. It hurt very much. As for the girl from school who lived above the shop? Last seen miserable in Hammersmith. Well, we all move on.
Ground floor interior of Music and Video Exchange on Notting Hill Gate.
Over the way from Zen is Millimetre, a hair dressing salon. In the old days, it used to be a grotty knicker shop but then it got swallowed up by the Music and Video Exchange franchise -- who have been on the Gate for so long they used to be called Record and Tape Exchange.
Sharpe and Sons the chemist (left) ran until the late 1980s
The Music and Video Exchange store is one of the original row of 18th Century buildings that still exists on Notting Hill Gate. To get a taste of the structure, go to the upstairs vinyl section. The staircase is an original feature (I think) and 18th Century buildings are boxier and have lower ceilings. If the shop changes hands with another business, this window into the past might get a gaudy 21st Century makeover and be lost forever.
A high street in London is nothing without a kebab shop. Notting Hill Kebabs, formerly Kebab Machine, have been on the Gate since 1975. This place has much history. They used to have a fruit machine and Defender arcade game on the premises in the mid 1980s. My neighbor used the plastic cutting wire from a garden strimmer to get free credits and once got caught, and whupped, by "Bear," the three star kebab chef who sold hashish under the counter.
Kentucky Fried Rat?
Another gourmet eatery, KFC, aka Kentucky Fried Rat, is still going strong on Notting Hill Gate. This place has been there since the late 1970s and was, for many years, one of the few KFC outlets in town. For decades it has been a popular rendezvous for local drug dealers. Not that the local fuzz are dumb about it. They are forever busting bloodclaats with pockets full of coke wraps and snap bags on the premises. And the reason it is nicknamed "Kentucky Fried Rat" is because shortly after my mother moved to the Gate, in 1978, there was a story in the London Evening Standard about a rat being found in the fryer. This is not some far fetched urban legend, nor is it an isolated incident in the history of KFC.
Further along the Gate is Starbucks, the ghastly American coffee house chain. That used to be a sports shop run by some Ugandan Asians who came to London after Idi Amin chucked them out in 1972. My younger brother bought a New York Cosmos soccer team t-shirt from there (which he still has).
Notting Hill Gate in the 1960s
Next along, the site of the "Grog Blossom" (1989-93) an outlet that sold specialty beers. Before that, it used to be an Indian run off-licence. I can still picture the illuminated Sandeman's Port sign that hung above its entrance. Last-but-not-least on the row is the "Gate Club," which used to be one of London's premier private members' clubs for gay men on the cruise. Between the Champion Pub, the Gate Club and Holland Park Walk down the road, the area was Mecca for gay chaps looking for casual outdoor sex from the 1960s to the 1990s. Sadly, the days of dancing backwards at the Gate Club came to an end in the late 1990s and it got rebooted as a crappy nightclub for latter day Sloane Rangers.
Notting Hill Gate Tube Station entrance (1983)
Just by the Tube station entrance (once a popular cruising spot for gay men) is the Book Warehouse. During the Seventies and Eighties it was "Mansworld" an off-the-peg outfitters for shithouse gents. I seem to recall my Uncle Billy buying some polyester trousers there once. My younger brother and I ribbed him mercilessly for it. Plans are now afoot to redevelop this stretch of the Gate and build an eight floor mixed retail and residential premises.
The Devonshire Arms. I wonder what happened to Mr. Turnbull?
On the corner of Pembridge Road and Notting Hill Gate is another fucking estate agents. Twenty years ago, it was the Devonshire Arms, a fantastic Victorian pub with a pool table upstairs. It was a prominent feature on the Gate. And when it got rebooted as "Mook" bar at the turn of the century, you could still see the Double Diamond beer logo stenciled on the exterior facade. I have fond memories of going to the Devonshire with my eccentric government and politics teacher. He saw great promise once. And drunkenly urged me to stay away from Humanities and read "summink like Business Studies at University." His reason? "You don't want to walk around thinking about the problems of the world. No, mate, you wanna make loadsamoney and forget all that bollocks." Being a rebel, I ignored the old fool entirely.
Campden Hill Towers and United House on Notting Hill Gate (1963)