Julian Mash is the author of Portobello Road: Lives of a Neighbourhood, published by Frances Lincoln. He is the literary programmer for End of the Road Festival and works in publishing. He was a recipient of a Royal Society of Literature Jerwood Award for Non-Fiction in 2013 and is currently working on his second book. This is the twentieth article in our regular series of “My London”.
Do we ever truly make London our own? Or do we just pass through this great metropolis, crisscrossing its length and breadth, carving out a path that becomes ‘our’ London but that is merely scratching the surface? I arrived in the city fourteen years ago, an idealistic twenty-one year old with a head full of dreams and a box full of records. A blink of an eye later and here I am now in my mid-thirties and clinging on to the city, hanging in there and trying to make a life in London for my young family. It is tough. The political and economic changes we have seen in the last decade and a half have had a huge impact on who can afford to continue to live here. With a two bedroom flat in zone 3 costing half a million pounds, buying somewhere has become an unattainable dream for those of us without wealthy parents. Rents rise year on year with estate agents charging for everything and anything they can – £200 to reprint a tenancy agreement to renew your lease? Why not? Over the last few years every conversation I have with London friends always come back to escape plans – Hastings or Margate? The Great Exodus has begun and future historians will see a tidemark appearing, visible from around 2009, marking the moment where London began to lose many of its young, creative minds.
But hasn’t living in London always been an expensive proposition? That is true but in the past there have been ways and means of getting by. If you didn’t mind the squalor there were cheap house-shares to be had or bedsits that allowed you to gain a toe hold in the city. That was how I tipped up here back in the autumn of 2003 when I found myself a grotty bedsit in Kilburn and began to explore the city. Like a great many people it was music, literature and art that drew me, like a magnet, to move to London in the first place.
Growing up in rural Herefordshire in the 1990s, London seemed like an impossibly glamorous place. I would devour the weekly music press every Wednesday when the local WH Smiths had their delivery. I could only afford to buy one (usually the NME) so I would stand, for as long as I could bear the scowls of the manager, flicking through the Melody Maker, my fingers inky black by the time I came to pay. Britpop was in full swing with Camden as its mecca – London was clearly where it was at. Staying up late watching BBC 2’s groundbreaking drama This Life I was determined to get there and make music or write books.
Looking back it was inevitable that I would form a band and so it was – falling in with some art school drop outs who knew their Syd Barrett from their Skip Spence. We soon were rehearsing through busted amps in a damp basement on Denmark Street. Tucked away behind Tottenham Court Road, Denmark Street was still full of guitar shops and recognizably the place where the Stones had recorded their early blues covers. The wrecking ball of Crossrail was yet to obliterate it.
We gigged all over the city from the Brixton Windmill to Shepherd’s Bush Empire and Madam JoJo’s in the West End. Around 2004/5 it felt like there was a wave of guitar bands from London, selling records and plastered on magazine covers, before downloading and streaming changed the musical landscape forever. We were desperately out of step with the leather jackets ‘n’ skinny jeans of the Libertines and their ilk – we wore sta pressed Farah trousers and corduroy jackets whilst our singer strutted her stuff in Biba and Ossie Clark dresses bought from second-hand vintage dealers on Portobello Road.
By this time I had made West London my home, constantly moving from flat to flat around Ladbroke Grove and Portobello Road. I had settled in West London despite the fact that everyone else of my generation seemed to have headed straight to Hackney. I had fallen in love with a girl who was as obsessed with 1960s and 70s pop culture as me and that meant that Notting Hill was the only place to live. This was where the bands we adored had set up shop in the grand, crumbling Victorian houses that were now spruced up and home to bankers. This was where local legends like Mighty Baby and Quintessence had formed, where crucial Hawkwind and early Pink Floyd gigs had occurred and where Mick Jagger’s character of Turner in the film Performance haunted Powis Square. There was still a residual feeling of excitement, like one of London’s lost rivers flowing just below the surface, reminding one that this was an important countercultural district.
I not only lived in the area but had begun working at the Travel Bookshop in 2006, the renowned neighbourhood institution, founded by the indomitable Sarah Anderson in 1979. The shop had pioneered the revolutionary idea of laying out the stock by region rather than A-Z by author. I had failed to notice that the shop had been used as the inspiration for Richard Curtis’s rom-com Notting Hill and was unprepared for the weekend deluge of film fanatics who would make the pilgrimage to the shop. With its closure in 2011 in the face of competition from online retailers like Amazon I went on my own journey in search of the heart and soul of the neighbourhood. My discoveries were compiled in my book Portobello Road: Lives of a Neighbourhood. It was a privilege to speak to so many interesting people from costermongers to musicians to writers and artists who had chosen to make this corner of London their own. It renewed my faith in the ability of the city and its inhabitants to change and adapt to the times they are living in. For although Notting Hill is a very different place to the one it was thirty years ago, the spirit of creativity and individuality remains undimmed. And that is what is so wonderful about London: no matter how high property prices rise or how gentrified an area becomes the spirit of the place lives on amongst the people who make it their home.