Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Left Bank of Rotting Hill Gate

Virgin Records on Notting Hill Gate (1977). The first Virgin record store in London.

There's a lot of haunted history on the left bank of Rotting Hill Gate. Where do I begin?  




I begin by crossing the busy artery of Holland Park Avenue and Notting Hill Gate. I'm deep in the territory of G.K. Chesterton. "There's never been anything in the world absolutely like Notting Hill," he once said. "There never will be anything quite like it to the crack of doom." 



Rotting Hill is associated with my youth. I can remember, where I am now, the old couple who used to park up outside the Gate Cinema every Thursday night in a racing green Bristol motor car; the fetid looking rag and bone man, clip clopping his aged nag along Rotting Hill Gate, yelling in cockney for scrap; the old West Indian bloke in an immaculate Fila tracksuit, emerging from the bookies after a win on the horses; the doe eyed 1960s supermodel, now a greying pensioner, sipping a kale smoothie in the parade of shops and looking rather mournful these days. There they are, there they were, the faces from the places of near but distant youth. I can't quite fit them into the Rotting Hill Gate of now.



Many locals have sold up to rich incomers: ugly Russians and snobby French people flipping houses and dodging taxes.  There's a lot of them about these days in Notting Hill. You can hear them speaking loudly in the queue at Tesco, down the i-Phone on the Circle Line or on the 52 bus to Wilesden and other new bits of Londongrad. But it's not just the Russians and the French. My beloved turf is awash with all sorts of annoying continentals with "Londra" guidebooks, too. They jump red lights at pedestrian crossings, ignore queues in local cafes and wander the high street with no sense of spatial awareness whatsoever.  I mustn't grumble. The Gate has always hustled and bustled with shady foreigners - right back to the 1940s and 1950s, when Wyndham Lewis was still resident here. It's part of the cycle of London's history. So embrace the changes and stop moaning.



But what preoccupies me are the ghosts of imagined shops, and there are many on Rotting Hill Gate. Memory holds back the door on the launderette that used to live on this side of the road. Now it's gone, which is a bit of an inconvenience for some long standing residents, who own neither a washer nor a dryer. My old launderette, on the Bayswater end of the Gate, was an early victim of gentrification. Now it's a walk-in suntan salon for rich housewives. So, if I want to get the sofa covers washed and dried, I now have to hoik them round the corner to Pembridge Gardens in a 1979 suitcase (carried on the top of my head like a Gambian housewife). RIP the beautiful launderettes of Rotting Hill Gate, you really are much needed now.   


Simon at Video City

On this side of the Gate, on the corner of Campden Hill Road,  there used to be a ritzy furriers. This business was an early victim of change. In the late 1980s, the fashion industry turned on fur and the biz went belly up. I once saw an advertisement for this ghostly shop in the back of Vogue magazine in the late 1980s just before it closed down. Earlier this year, on a previous trip to London, I spoke to Simon, the gaffer of Video City (RIP 1981-2015). The owner of the furriers once gave him a dime tour of the premises. "They had a huge refrigeration unit downstairs that was full of fur coats and stoles," he said. RIP the furriers. Now it's a nondescript restaurant that boasts the biggest pizzas in town. Hip hip hooray.


Oddbins: handy for underage drinkers

Past the frantic cars and rushing white vans of Campden Hill Road is a new Italian deli and cafe. It boasts on the canopy that its been here since 1991 but it hasn't. Years ago, this was a Lebanese restaurant, with a huge clay oven visible from the street. I remember coming back from Holland Park School one dark winter's afternoon and seeing the chef bake bread on its cavernous rim. Next door to that was Oddbins, the popular UK wine retailer. This branch was once the busiest outlet in England and I have many fond memories of this spot. Under the legal age of drinking, way back in the sweltering summer of 1985, I once got busted at the counter by a member of staff buying a four pack of Stones Bitter ("You ain't 18!") However, that said, it didn't stop me from being a underage customer of Oddbins thereafter...



How can I forget Pizza Express? It's been on the Gate for yonks, way back to the Nineties, Eighties and Seventies. The popular pizzeria chain hasn't changed that much over the years. And it still serves a useful function because there are not many good restaurants left around Rotting Hill Gate. Costas on Hillgate Street is gone, so is Geales, the upmarket fish and chop shop, ruined by numerous changes of owner, and the Ark, once a quirky French style bistro on Palace Gardens Terrace, is now an "English tapas" joint run by a gang of posho incomers from Suffolk. Pizza Express it is.    


Holland Park School

The furriers, the Lebanese restaurant, Oddbins boozer and Pizza Express... but what was next door? Do you remember what was here? I do. Variety Trading, the "Harrods of Notting Hill", an amazing thrift store that sold everything from cutlery to knock-off Walkmans not made by Mr. Sony of Japan. Come to think of it, my aged dinner service at HQ is from Variety Trading. Ditto the breadboard. They've lasted well, considering they were bought in 1983. As for the shop itself, Variety Trading was a family affair, run by a cheery bunch of South Asians who sent their son to Holland Park. The kid worked in the shop at weekends but he was a bit of a schizoid pupil at school. When you went in to buy Afghan slippers from the shop he was very convivial; but, back in school come Monday, he was a moody git who hated everyone and everything (I blame our teachers). As for the family firm, Variety Trading closed its doors for business in the early Nineties, and is still much missed by locals old enough to remember it.



Further along the parade, the boarded-up premises of Video City. Video City had been "keeping it reel" on the Gate since 1981 (it used to be on the other side of the road, above Centre of Sound). What made Video City the best little video store in town was the choice of films. And the personal service. It treated its customers like stars and the stars who were customers like normal people. This being Notting Hill, celeb sighting were frequent in the queue for a rent. Pouting Patsy Kensit when she was married to Dan Donovan, Paula Yates, barefoot and high on a mind bending combo of everything, Ruby Wax, the unfunny comedian turned self-help guru of mindfulness, barging past customers like the Queen of America, the neurotic looking blonde with shrapnel in her leg who used to read the News on ITN, old rubber lips from the Rolling Stones, and the film bloke who reputedly shoved a hamster up his rear. Alas, the store closed in June 2015 after 30 years of biz on this side of the Gate. The area does not seem the same without it.


Now I come to a halt at the grey dome of the Coronet, an historic variety theatre that became a cinema in the 20th Century, and then went back to being a theatre again in the 21st. Everyone who was famous once played on its stage and the Coronet is reputedly haunted by the ghost of Marie Lloyd and a female cashier. I have never seen a ghost at the Coronet but I do recall my younger brother, shivering and groaning for three hours during a 1980 screening of Kagemusha, the Akiro Kurosawa epic about feudal Japan. What was great about the Coronet is that you could smoke ganja during a film and not get booted out. Unless, of course, a policeman from Notting Hill nick was in attendance.   


Fuck Starbucks. I'm going to Da Maria!

Starbucks. Cafe Nero. Pret a Manger. Paul Rhodes. Nowadays, Rotting Hill Gate is teeming with coffee shop chains. Back in ye olde days, if you wanted to sup a latte or cappuccino you went to Da Maria, a tiny Italian cafe squeezed right next to the Gate Cinema. The place is a shrine to Italian football and whenever there is a big match it's packed out with hollering expats. With its gingham table cloths, strip lights piping the window frames, and rusty tiled floor, Da Maria remains a great stop to watch the speeding world of Rotting Hill Gate go by.


The Gate Cinema (1983)

We were once fortunate to have two picture houses on the left bank of Rotting Hill Gate. Now that the Coronet has gone back to being a theatre proper, the Gate Cinema stands alone. They used to have a late night double bill every Friday: The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Myra Breckinridge


Me and Scruffy Pal (1987)


Me and a scruffy pal from Holland Park got barred for pelting water bombs at the punters and letting off fireworks during the same double bill one night in the mid Eighties. A few years after, there was a change in management and I managed to land a summer job at the cinema. The pay was awful and the boss lady was a Glaswegian punk called Jackie - who managed to incur the fear and wrath of her loser employees, a bitter bunch of failed actors and would-be film directors. I wonder where they are now? Bitter on the dole, I should imagine!


My friend Titlow calls this place "the Roger Moore pub".

Le Pain Quotidien wasn't always a fancy pants bakery. If you gaze up at the panes on the front exterior of the building, you can still see the stencil of the old Finch's pub logo. Hurrah! Something reeking from the past! Hidden in plain sight from busy pedestrians down below! This building used to be the Hoop, an Irish pub reputedly frequented by members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).  There aren't any pix of the Hoop on file anywhere (but you can see the side of it on the above shot of the Gate Cinema). Sadly, most of the pubs in my old patch have been ruined by 21st Century makeovers. The only ones worth a piss up these days around Rotting Hill Gate are the Churchill Arms, the Uxbridge Arms and the Windsor Castle. It's a good thing that I gave up drinking in 2010.


The only pic I could find of the old fishmongers

Not so long ago, a mere blip in time, there used to be a handy fishmongers, Chalmers & Gray, which used to sell amazingly meaty fish cakes that always sold out very quickly indeed. Nonetheless, when passing this biz, you had to exercise caution because staff used to bung out smelly fish entrails into the street. One clueless shop boy once managed to bung them all over my brand new Nike Air trainers in 1989 (and was thoroughly reprimanded in local patois for doing so). Now it's just another sandwich store, Pret a Manger... so, if you want to score some overpriced john dory, haddock or sea bass, you have to go round the corner to the post-modern fishmongers next to Kensington Place restaurant.


Newcombe House

The sheer cliff face of a grey tower block, it's Newombe House, quite soon for the chop!  Rising like a tombstone, Newcombe House is another brutal example of post 1945 urban architecture on the Gate. That said, over the years, I have grown rather fond of this towering carbuncle -- its hard edges, straight lines and broken window panes. This is because the top of Newcombe House is visible from my bedroom window. And I have seen the sheer grey office block toasted with sunlight, camouflaged in fog, frosted with snow and lashed by rain. I've grown so fond as to practically embrace it -- which I suppose was the intention of the architect and county planners. Now the office block is missing several panes of glass, many of its windows are boarded up; poor Newcombe House, you look rather shabby and forlorn these days. 


Artist's rendition of proposed redevelopment. Oh dear.

Back in May 2015, the owners of Newcombe House invited locals to an exhibition of their plans to redevelop this junction of the Gate and Kensington High Street. Its site includes the rear car park -- home of the popular Farmers' Market, which has been happily meeting there every Saturday for the last dozen years or so. The owners, "envisage a vibrant mix of office, retail, community and residential uses and the introduction  of a new fully accessible public square". I am fairly skeptical about changes to the structure and its immediate space. Twenty years ago, some bright spark decided to add an art installation fountain at the foot of the office block to brighten it up. It only encouraged passing drunks to use it as a toilet. By the way, there's a great shot of Newcombe House, Astley House  and HQ at the very beginning of this Ken Russell documentary about my road. 


Ghastly Astley House

Now I'm at the bus stop, where the 12 and 88 bus used to ferry spotty friends and flirty girls back home to Shepherd's Bush and beyond. Where have the spotty friends and flirty girls all gone to? They're nowhere to be seen these days and probably half dead by now. All that remains are the ghosts of shops and businesses past. I squint and picture the dark blue canopy and fake oak facade of old Bertorelli's Italian Restaurant. Blink and blink again, I can almost see the bald head of Mr Jalas, the diddy Indian newsagent, scurrying along the paving stones with a tied up bundle of papers under his arm. And whatever happened to Homy's hair salon? Gone, gone away with the great surging of rents.  


When will the cops close this lame assed club?

Ah, there's the Notting Hill Arts Club! A very fashionable place when the Contessa and I used to go clubbing in the late Nineties. Memories return in the winter wind; the obnoxious female critic in the green velvet suit, the ravenous Icelandic coke whore who groped me in the bogs, the private party my brothers and I crashed in black tie and tux (they banned chaps in black tie and tux soon after), and the old Sunday event, "Lazy Dog", and its noisy youths winding round the block to go in and listen to Ben Watt on the decks. They queued all day to get in, standing out in the wind, rain and cold, swilling back lager, eating kebabs and Colonel Sanders chicken. It was a bit of a liberty to make punters queue up like that, I often thought on passing by. Isn't the club breaking a local by-law? I must be getting old, I must be moving on.


Linden Gardens (1973). No rubbish on the street.

Now I cross the road to Linden Gardens. I am "home" once again, but not for long. I gaze back and survey the new topography of Rotting Hill Gate, retreating silently and inwardly to the bombed ruins of memory and the warm charms of aimless youth. The noisy traffic, the parades of people, the faceless new shops and horrid little flats.  Is this progress? I don't like it very much! Dear vanished Rotting Hill Gate, my late lamented friend, the incomers and the estate agents got to you in the end!


Until next time...


The first joke my wife told me was about Edward Woodward


The Male Trailing Spouse