Puppydog tails — 18 December 2018

In October 2010 I got a fare to take a famous writer to his home which presciently was situated near the summit of one of the most famous hills in London – Notting Hill.

Richard Curtis has done more to popularise this area than most. It might have the trappings of wealth, but it has a dark underbelly as I found once in Portland Road when my passenger, unlike Richard Curtis, declined to pay.

Notting Hill has a long history as one of the most deprived and dangerous parts of London, a theme richly brought to life by Fiona Rule in her recent book Streets of Sin a dark biography of Notting Hill.

Fiona Hill now seems to specialise in delving into a small area of London and shining a light on its most unsavoury past as she did in her previous book The Worst Street in London.

Her latest work take us from Notting Hill’s days as a smallholding known as Portobello Farm named after a Spanish naval base in Panama and introduces us to characters such as the curiously named Matthew Chitty Downes St. Quintin and the better known Peter Rachman and Christine Keeler.

I was surprised to learn that 10 Rillington Place home of serial killer John Christie was just a stone’s throw from my fare, the award winning playwright.

The multi-award winning BBC documentary The Secret History of our Streets took as its guide the survey map of London compiled by Charles Booth and this map are used for the end papers of Fiona Rule’s book. In the map streets are categorised according to wealth with vast swaths of Notting Hill’s map depicted as being vicious and semi-criminal. Incidentally the BBC chose Portland Road, the very street where my recalcitrant fare alighted in a hurry.

Fiona Rule has used Booth’s survey as her theme and writes in her accessible style of the many less savoury characters that have lived in the area known as ‘Rotting Hill’. On a lighter note she has interestingly discovered the nascent Gay Liberation Front was to be found near Talbot Road; psychedelic counter-culture magazine Oz whose editor would later be tried for obscenity had its origins in Princedale Road; and that Booth noted Christie’s road presciently as Killington Place.

In the final chapter Notting Hill’s gentrification is covered. The Westway cuts the area in half promising us an optimistically ‘3-minute motorway into London’ as much of the slum property is gentrified.

The Brutalist high-rise flats of Trellick Tower surprising are not given a mention in this chapter. Given they were designed by Erno Goldfinger, a name used by James Bond’s author Ian Fleming who disliked Goldfinger intensely; the tale would have warranted a chapter in itself. I also would have liked more illustrations to bring the characters that Fiona Rule has unearthed more to life.

The book should make for uncomfortable reading for the chattering classes who now regard their community the pillar of propriety. Unfortunately the area now might be considered upmarket but a woman passenger of mine said her office windows remained shut as unemployed men hung around on the street beneath them in Golbourne Road smoking joints giving her and the staff a high.

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