Wednesday 16 March 2016

London, my London

34 Tite Street might not sound like the sort of address your brain registers immediately as worth remembering for any particular reason. But if I were to add the following quote: “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”, then, you might be in a better position to have a go at guessing who I am writing about.

Or perhaps not. After all, Oscar Wilde, the author of the quote above, was such a prolific writer that it would be hard for anyone to keep up with all his witticisms and putdowns. On cynicism, though, he nailed it. This was not just a throwaway phrase (I do not think he ever said anything that was unintentional or accidental) but an acute observation of the society in which Wilde lived.

Wilde was on my mind as I cycled on Battersea Bridge Road towards Beaufort Street en route to Portobello Road from Brixton Market. It was only a fleeting thought, however, caused by the familiar sight of the sun-drenched Embankment on my right. I had been on this very road a few days before as part of my three-stadium bike-tour. Seeing the long straight thoroughfare again reminded me of Cavafy’s poem The Place. That’s when Wilde made his unplanned cameo. CP Cavafy, one of the most important Greek poets of the 20th century had been heavily influenced by William Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde.

It was not just the combination of cycling near SW3, where Wilde’s former residence, 34 Tite Street was, and the Irish poet’s influence on the Greek one that reminded me of The Place. It was also some of the lines from the poem which suited the flat-looking and almost noise-free streets I was biking along. Drayton Gardens, Gloucester Road and Princes Diana Memorial Playground lent themselves to the nostalgia-coloured verses: “You shall not find new places; other seas/you shall not find. The place shall follow you/And you shall walk the same familiar streets/and you shall age in the same neighbourhood/and whiten in these same houses.” I kept thinking of the lives lived behind the high-ceilinged, oak-floor terraced houses that flanked me along the way. It always happens when I am out and about in London, whether on foot or bicycle. I often wonder: who lives behind that closed door? What are their lives like? What are their dreams and hopes?

I had asked myself the same question when I was in the triangle formed by Brixton Road, Coldharbour Lane and Atlantic Road and I asked myself the same question as my two-wheeler touched down on Portobello Road.

It was a Saturday which could only mean crowds. Having been so far on a Zen-like trip from Brixton to Holland Park, facing the full force of a market day in west London all of a sudden jolted me out of my reverie. Then again, this was Portobello Market, a place where since the 1940s “rag and bone” men and antiques dealers have become the raison d'être of this fashionable part of Notting Hill (yes, that Notting Hill, Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant’s Notting Hill). Another reason why this part of London is so renowned is its vintage clothes shops on Pembridge Road.

The best way to enjoy the market for me was to get off my bike and saddle-push it all the way from the start of  Portobello Road down to the A40 (Westway). It was difficult to walk, especially once I went past Westbourne Grove. The further into the market I ventured, the denser the crowd, the more varied the stalls and the higher the volume of people’s voices. As I neared Westbourne Park Road music made an appearance in the form of reggae. It is worth noting that the worldwide famous Notting Hill Carnival takes place in this area every year at the end of August. The largest street festival in Europe, this is a celebration of Afro-Caribbean traditions and cultures that has been going on for more than fifty years. As I came out at the other end of Portobello Road, looking for Ladbroke Grove and a way to get on to the canal path, Camden-bound, I looked back and could not help thinking about what must have motivated Notting Hill’s screen-writer Richard Curtis to “whiten up” not only the cast, but also the neighbourhood in the movie. There they all were, the vendors, the costumers, the tourists, the locals, all mixed, todos mezclados, different but mixed. I got back on my bike and cycled off.

I wonder what lives are lived behind that door

© 2016

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 19th March at 6pm (GMT)


  1. I haven't seen Notting Hill but from your post I guess it doesn't reflect the ethnic makeup of the place. Too bad.

  2. 'Whitening up' history, places, people is ALWAYS a mistake.

  3. You capture well the wonderfully diverse and eclectic joys of the Portobello Market. I miss it. I can't imagine why a film producer would whiten up anyplace, but then again, look at this year's Oscar nominations. This is yet another reason why I prefer books to Hollywood, although books often have diversity issues too, a problem I discussed on my blog today too.

  4. It's so out of fear. Fear that we might not be so exclusively right or brilliant or talented or capable...or beautiful. Other ethnicities, view points, strengths and intelligence, and not to mention lightly a Kaleidoscope of beauty, challenge this narrow minded thinking and make a white society conversely fight oriented and foolish.
    Clay feet.
    Moving forward and embracing everyone and everything makes a strong society. "United we stand, divided we fall." It may sound trite but a cliche that never looses it truth.

    I love your cycling/walking tours, I always look up the places and and get a visual that is fun and informative. Now I have to look up Cavafy, you keep me busy. And closed doors stir my imagination!

  5. You are a scholar of London!

  6. Now I have that song Portobello Road stuck in my head from Bedknobs and Broomsticks haha

  7. Your descriptive posts are brilliant. I always wanted to visit one of the Notting Hill Carnivals but never made it. I am also very fond of Oscar Wilde's quotes. I did have a book on his life but somewhere along the way it was mislaid. Sad.

  8. Hi ACIL - it was fairly whitened up when I lived there in the mid 70s ... and did you know there was a race course in the 1700 - 1800s - can't quite remember, but I've got the information here somewhere! If you look at the map ... you can see the oval type shape in the Ladbroke Gardens layout. I remember the Carnival days - noisy!, full of people ... but I usually got up and went elsewhere ...

    Cheers Hilary

  9. Very nicely written. The quote about cynic is great and so true.

    You sound like me in the part about wondering what's behind the doors. I do that all of the time and am interested when I am actually invited into someone else's home to be able to see how they live. Often I am surprised--often pleasantly so.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

  10. This is lovely - I was brought up in London, but it's a much more exciting, multicultural city now than it was then!

  11. What a nice Saturday morning you've described. I too wonder what's behind closed doors. Your delight in the crowd, the vendors, the poetry makes this post a gem.
    Haven't visited your blog in a while. Glad I did today.

  12. I love that shot!

  13. I recently discovered a fascinating film by Ken Russell made in his early days, around 1960. It's about all the people who lived in a house where he used to rent a room. he knew them all. It's a documentary - the only thing, I believe, that is not true, is the fact that for the sake of the story he said the house would be demolished. It is not demolished - still there. I wonder who lives there now. Here is the film, I think it's wonderful.

  14. Love the Wilde quote and the cynic in me wanted to know about the mushrooms on Portobello Road

  15. Oh wow...I found this trip so exhilarating...all those sights and sounds, so vividly brought to life!
    And I have learned a lot too...I had no idea Oscar Wilde lived there, or that the Portobello Market had such a long and fascinating history.
    Thank you so much for this, CiL...I have so enjoyed the trip!

    Have a fabulous weekend.:))

  16. Good to know I'm not the only one who wonders about the people living inside the homes and sitting inside of the cars I pass by every day. Maybe that's part of the reason we strike up conversations with strangers... it's a basic yearning to make connections.

    You wonder about the "whitening" of the neighborhood in the movie? I think the Caucasian race has a tendency to be arrogant and ego-centric. How better to explain the colonization period, when white Europeans "discovered" and "claimed" other countries, in spite of the fact that those lands were already inhabited? And even had the audacity to run rough-shod over the inhabitants by giving those lands new names? Or that for so long, movie roles of native Americans, Asians and dark-skinned characters were played by white people? Maybe it wasn't just arrogance; maybe it was ignorance, too, but hopefully, things are getting better. Diversity makes life much more rich and interesting.

  17. I have seen the movie Notting Hill but not the place that inspired setting it in that particular area of London. Great photo at the top, teeming with city multicultural energy.



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