The Napoleon Complex of Notting Hill

(REUTERS) – Islamic State (Isis) fighters in West London claim they have taken control of a Royal Park in the central province of Kensington, the second it has seized in a week after battles with government forces. The hardline Sunni Islamist group posted 18 photos on social media showing the Islamic State flag raised over the Serpentine as well as captured vehicles and weaponry, according to the jihadi website’s monitoring service. Western media could not independently confirm the events due to security restrictions. Isis fighters, who control up to a third of West London as well as swathes of Zone 1, and have declared a ‘caliphate’ in the territories they control, seized Kensington Palace on 30 October. “So after the (Sha’ar) company and the (positions) surrounding it became part of the land of the caliphate, the soldiers advanced, conquering new areas, and all praise is due to Allah,” Islamic State said in the message. “Yesterday they tightened control over Sloane Square and Stamford Bridge stadium, and nearly nine (positions) supported by heavy weaponry such as tanks, armoured vehicles, and heavy machine guns of various calibres,” it added. The US says it is not coordinating with forces of the London Mayor, Boris Johnson, to combat the Islamist group.

Go West, life is peaceful there. Without wishing to repeat my comments from the Hammersmith & Fulham post, I’ve always felt West London to be quite an alien entity. It was the first wedge of the city to become an enclave exclusively for those with a bit of wedge, and North London is heading rapidly in the same direction (in fact, all of London is). People came here more when I first moved to London; Alan McGee ran his Death Disco in the Arts Club, the secondhand record shops were a big draw, and a few university friends once took me to the carnival, where I guffawed to see their genuine fright at the presence of police helicopters. There is affluence and comfort here, as well as evidence of a rich artistic heritage. There is less noise, less transient fashion  and fewer idiots than Dalston or Peckham, but also less activity, less life, less going on; it signposts London’s future as a kind of Switzerland minus the scenery. It’s very strange to think that not so long ago, Notting Hill was blighted by race riots and Rachmanism.

Switching to the Circle line at Westminster, I pause for a moment to appreciate this Fritz Lang film set of a station. Unafraid to show its bare bones, it is dominated by vast concrete pillars that hold up the show, and steel elevators carrying commuters across the three levels. The style is very masculine but shows off the complex engineering; not a million miles from a vast gothic cathedral.

For this postcode most of the sights on the Nairn trail are actually slightly further West, in the well-to-do and monstrously overpriced Holland Park, but exiting the tube at Notting Hill Gate I want to take a quick look at the area. It’s an incongrous mix of the tasteful and the dog-rough; residential side-streets show sensible stucco fronts with doric columns, but looming above them all are gloomy, exhausted-looking high rise blocks. Beneath one, a statue of Paddington Bear, evidently one of a series to promote a new film. This incarnation has the topical name “Dapper Bear”.

Picking a random block to stroll around, I am confronted with an oddly-shaped church that looks Victorian romanesque, matching red brick with a diamond-shaped rose window. Something about it reminds me of a synagogue and a few private companies appear to have offices inside. The establishment is Christian Science, which I mistake for Scientology (I should have known otherwise from the distinct lack of bling). Opposite is a blue plaque for Wyndham Lewis, and a pompous little house down the gap between two mansion blocks, with a sign advising us of how much of the pavement it owns. If nothing else, it is varied.

The rest of the block, were someone to present it as a satire of Cameron’s Britain, would be written off as facile; shops selling gold antique clocks, vases and chandeliers, stores dedicated exclusively to dog treats. Further along the high street, behind the cinema are small terraces painted a variety of pastel colours. These, one could imagine poor people having lived in at one point.

The first destination Nairn has for us, 83 Notting Hill Gate, is a ghost. The pity is that The Hoop was “the best modern pub interior in London”. Pubs tend to have come off worse than churches in the intervening 50 years, I suppose it’s harder to pick up forgiveness and redemption in the supermarket and get saved at home. Nairn commends The Hoop as “classically simple – public on one side, saloon on the other, and a splendid back bar from which both estates are visible… the pub atmosphere doesn’t need to be worked at but grows up from the basic architectural decisions.” Nothing of this remains, the pub is now a branch of Le Pain Quotidien. This chain always reminds me, with a wince, of a trip to Bruges. Upon arrival I consulted our guidebook for a good place to have lunch, selected a cool-sounding café called Het Dagelijks Brood, and you can guess the rest.

Continuing towards Holland Park, I make a detour at Campden Hill Square. As a schoolboy still discovering literature, I got into Harold Pinter in a big way. When he appeared in Belfast I went to see him and, having had no experience of the outside world and no concept of etiquette, presented him with a very puerile satire of his work called The Old Man. To my Santa-has-been astonishment, he sent a letter (“next time you run into this Harold Punter bloke, tell him to keep at it”). The address on the letter was Campden Hill Square, W11. I knew nothing at all of London and W11 meant nothing to me, but my teenage self must have contemplated the address and thought, “I fancy some of that”. I don’t recall the exact house but I think it’s one of those pictured, Nos 10-12. There’s no plaque, but Siegfried Sassoon is a few doors along.

After the square is a large statue of St Volodomyr, C10th ruler of the Ukraine, festooned with wreaths and ribbons in blue and yellow. If the area has a Ukrainian community too, there must be a fair deal of ethnic tension right now, although the Russians may huddle together in Chelsea. I turn off at the wide street named yer actual Holland Park, with its procession of huge, detached four-storey houses in gleaming white, each looking more like a Grand Hotel than a home. Nairn makes no comment on this splendour, instead directing us a few yards further, to Holland Park Mews. You find quite a lot of mews in the swankier London districts. The Scots might be entitled to invert Dr Johnson and call them “stables which in Scotland generally house horses, but in England provide shelter for the (richest) people”.

I can see why immediately; these dwellings are dodgems next to the Daimlers round the corner, but they feel like homes. The small triumphal arch at their entrance gently sends up the grandeur of their neighbours. They’re all cute hobbit-style bungalows, with a garage space and steps leading to a flat above, with a tiny roof terrace, but every one is decorated differently and a world of diversity has been spun out of the one template.

Nairn is reminded of Dublin: “Most London mews are more fun to live in than look at. But this one is a cathedral among mewses. A steep drop to the entrance arch, a steep climb out and a wristy flick at the east end give it an individual signature. In between, the strange blend of mews life rolls on for something like a quarter of a mile: chi-chi cottages above, and specialist car repairers below. Zone that lot, ye makers of plans!” I’d estimate that maybe 5% of the garages still seem to host workshops for mechanics, which 5% is more than I’d expect in 2014. Leaving them to it, I nip into the park.

The paths are carpeted in leaves of red and gold, and there are plenty of peacocks strutting about. Kensington Council is not feeling much of a pinch, evidently. I’ve only been to this park two or three times before and had forgotten that there is a Japanese garden, complete with paunchy koi karp loitering in the hope of food. Not having been to Kyoto I cannot vouch for its authenticity, but the slab at the entrance names many Japanese corporations who put a few quid towards it.

In our misspent twenties I remember a friend trying to break up with a girl over the phone, and her insisting that they meet in Holland Park to do it. That girl had a sense of stagecraft.

I’m very curious about the above building, seemingly an unlikely youth hostel, and eventually I locate its front; this is Holland House, built for a courtier of James I and later meeting place for the C19th Whigs. It looks like around 3/4 of the actual house is missing, and the sign by the gate does admit to substantial Blitz damage. What is left, I quite like; the courtly Elizabethan style isn’t one you see much of and it resembles a piece of dreamt-up architecture from a renaissance painting. The arcaded porticoes look startling, perhaps because they are now ridiculous, having lost the actual house they served; the look is bereft and ghost-town, the premise exposed as empty.

Coming out the other side of the park, I cross a fantastic street of huge Georgian houses and make for No. 8, Addison Road. Mr Nairn omits this house and Mr Meades dislikes it (“an alderman dressed as a hippy”) but I’ve always found it haunting, because of its starring role in Losey’s Secret Ceremony; a daft film that it runs away with, despite the manfully doomed efforts of Liz Taylor, Mia Farrow and Bob Mitchum. It’s privately owned and never in Open House, which is a pity as the Byzantine mosaics inside are even better than the luminous tiles on the outside. The place was built for the owner of Debenham’s and, brilliantly, became a loony bin for a few decades after that. Now some shady investment firm or oligarch has turned it into a building site to create, as I believe fashion currently dictates, extra underground floors. That’s progress for you.

Stopping briefly to contemplate the Tudor revival St Barnabas, I turn off at Melbury Rd for more Nairning. This street is all over the place; a real potpourri of flights of fancy, where each house has dreamt up its own eccentric shape and ridicule is nothing to be scared of.

Nairn being his own man as always, he has sent us to Melbury Road so he can disapprove of the Victorian aesthetes and award the laurel to two contemporary blocks of flats. “While the Victorians were tying themselves in all kinds of fancy knots, this pair does a straightforward job simply. They have moral fibre where the C19th was sunk in soggy eclecticism”. Farley Court is first; good design, but my gut reaction is more ‘If you say so’ than excitement.

At the other end of the street is Park Close. I reckon I can spot this right away, and think to myself “I can really see what you’re talking about here; these are modern and lovely”. It turns out that I’m looking at entirely the wrong block (built 2 years before Nairn’s London, Stavordale Lodge probably comes within “there is plenty of today’s soggy indecision around here as well”). Park Close is around the corner and does less for me than Farley Court.

Melbury Road turns a bend and a few more houses provide a coda. Nairn singles out Fildes House as the one Victorian show-off that is of real merit, as it “scorns surface tricks and lets the buildings various purposes grow into an asymmetrical group”. Between a long bay window and a side extension there’s a charming covered porch which seems to have a little balcony on top, whilst the upper floors are dominated by fancy gable shapes recalling the golden age of Amsterdam.

Turning onto Holland Park Rd, we find the home of the painter Lord Leighton. The exterior doesn’t say much, but then it’s always the quiet ones.

It’s £7 to enter. The house is now a gallery of C19th paintings hung throughout his studio, bedroom, and dining room, but the must-sees are his “Narcissus Room”, kitted out in more art nouveau tiles of the most lustrous blue, and “Arab Room” which is one of the most marvellous things in London. Marble pillars lead to a burnished gold mosque dome, there’s a small fountain at the centre and all around are mosaics and intricate Islamic tiling, the latter brought back from Damascus by Sir Richard Burton.

The gold mosaics contain deer, peacocks and cockatiels. You could spend all day on the details. Lord Leighton was such a celebrated painter that the Prime Minister carried his coffin, but if this were my lounge I would never get any work done at all; I’d live like Mick Jagger in Performance, and spend all day smoking hallucinogens from a chaise longue. It’s only as I write this up, a week after my visit, that I realise this room is the location of two famous videos: Spandau’s Gold and The Stranglers’ Golden Brown. 

You can tell this place is something from the fact that I haven’t let Nairn have get a word in edgeways yet. Here he is: “Leighton’s house has the wholeness and excitement which is so conspicuously absent from his paintings… here you can really see what they were at, and like all true essence it seems quite natural… harmonious, one world; nobody looking over their shoulders like frightened mice. In a decade and a city controlled by frightened mice, the point is worth making over and over again”.

The temporary exhibition on show is the collection of some Mexican tycoon- drugs money can end up in some funny places, I think, in my casual racist way. The paintings on display are Pre-Raph stuff; sad women with long hair, big chins and velvet gowns doing stuff they ought not to. The biggest Leighton is an imaginative Death of Brunelleschi. The upper floor gets more openly titillating, with lots of plump girls in the first flush of youth. Bathing is a very popular subject for some reason. After the discovery of Pompeii, there are a lot of sentimental miniatures of Roman youths in courtship, and the exhibition centrepiece is our old pal The Roses of Heliogabalus. I find myself enjoying them but it is very orientalist and very “male gaze”. A Dutch man points at one of the big-eyed models and remarks to me, “Nice piece of furniture”.

The house is very big by our rent-serf standards, and the studio has a huge window of the garden that floods is with light, but it’s interesting that there is only one (fairly small) bedroom. On the way out, I glance at the correspondence on his desk and notice a letter from arguably the most evil man that ever lived.

The rest of the street keeps up the boho appearances; someone has nailed up some kind of municipal bird bath, or mini-fountain, or something, from the days of Dual Monarchy Budapest (I don’t stretch much further than ‘jo napot kivanok’, but ‘Vizvezetek’ is plumbing). If you feel blue at how much money West Londoners have, the fact that they waste it on artefacts like the car below might hint that their lives aren’t necessarily better.

En route to the final sight, Nairn mentions that “Edwardes Square and Pembroke Square have been extruded into notability because of the mediocrity of most things built since in the Royal Borough”. The houses are attractive, the actual squares surrounded by such thick foliage that they are invisible from the outside. I am highly amused to spot blue plaques for the Irredentist poet and Risorgimento hero Ugo Foscolo, and for Frankie Howerd.

The Nairn trek ends at a pub, and I’m happy to report this one has not gone the way of the Hoop. The Scarsdale is currently a Fullers pub, and not in so bad a nick; period details left alone, high-end gastro menu, carefully mismatched furniture, a dining room at the rear which seems poised to take over the rest of the pub. On a dark mid-afternoon there are a smattering of loadsamoney locals at the bar, and American families ordering meals at the back (at 3:30pm, is this lunch or dinner?).

“So hard to do, so simple once it has been done… there is a genuine forecourt with open-air tables, and to sit out here on a summer day with the foreground all green and airliners from every country turning finals on London Airport is an exhilarating cocktail of an experience: metropolitan, up-to-the-minute, relaxed, and pure cockney, all at the same time”. It’s still relaxed.


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