The term “Notting Hill Set” was coined in 2004 by a Conservative MP who didn’t want the likes of David Cameron rising to the top of his party: considered by their foes to be dangerously trendy, Cameron and like-minded Tories – Osborne, Gove, Hilton, Boles – either were or had been residents of Notting Hill. Others disparaged the Set for different reasons: they were seen as interlopers; affluent settlers simultaneously contaminating and sanitising one of the capital’s most celebrated quarters of bohemian resistance to all that was posh, rich and slick.
This was and is selective thinking. The Notting Hill neighbourhood has long been populated by a mix of respectability, raffishness and roughness. Reportedly named after a band of Saxons, the “sons of Cnotta”, it was known by the mid-19th century for its composite population of foreigners, adventurers and more reputable types. At today’s junction of Ladbroke Grove and Kensington Park Gardens there was a racetrack. As for cocksure Tories, the latter street, with its gorgeous terraced houses, provided the fictional London home of Alan Hollinghurst’s flamboyant mid-1980s Thatcherites in The Line of Beauty.
The fire at Grenfell Tower, just a short walk from the Grove, produced berating commentaries about the proximity of rich and poor, as if the very juxtaposition had lit the flames. But that feature of the area has been around since before punk rock. Locals laughed at Leo Sayer singing that you had to “leap across the street”, but this was the territory of illegal blues parties, where people charged you to enter their houses to dance, smoke, heavily inhale and risk a visit from the Met. Meanwhile, round the corner lived TV producers and Roedean girls. To visit them on foot was almost to invite stop-and-search (yes, this is the voice of experience).
Of course, it is a long time since Colville Terrace and Powis Square were rife with Rachmanism and slum-renting Caribbean households menaced by their landlord’s enforcers, such as the racketeer revolutionary Michael X. Note, however, that those handsome houses, many converted to multi-occupancy hovels even before the war, had originally been the elegant dwellings they have now again become. At the same time, it was right that eyebrows were raised about the whiteness of the Richard Curtis version of Notting Hill portrayed in the eponymous 1999 romcom movie. After all, A J Tracey’s from round there.
These small reflections are prompted by the Notting Hill Carnival being cancelled by Covid for a second year. The Carnival’s history, rooted in reactions to the 1958 race riots, captures seven decades of London conflicts and delights. It also threads through larger stories of cultural churn and change with which the neighbourhood’s name is linked. Notting Hill has become smart again. But Carnival reminds us of its many strands of history, and it will return.
John Vane writes word sketches of London. Follow John on Twitter.
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