In many ways London is defined by its literary heritage. The bookish tourist can follow literary footsteps from Chaucer’s Southwark, Dickens’ East End stews, the Fitzrovia of the Bloomsbury Set, to Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, the Metroland of Julian Barnes and the the pubs that Dylan Thomas frequented.
While writers Virginia Woolf (Mrs Dalloway, 1925) Iris Murdoch (Henry and Cato, 1977) and our own Marius Brill (Making Love: A Conspiracy Of The Heart, 2003) have explored the shabby, run-down side of Notting Hill and Shepherd’s Bush, it’s not so easy to find literary folklore of Kensington and Chelsea that might attract coach parties eager to share the Martin Amis ‘landscape’ experience.
The pleasure of recognition in reading novels is that they can give unexpected insight, capture a moment in the landscape of the local neighbourhood and understand some of the various, occasionally dubious, social mores and past lives of the area.
Notting Hill developed a strong literary genre as a dilapidated, tenanted district, but has a more contemporary incarnation as a modish media village in Rachel Johnson’s Notting Hell (2006).
Wyndham Lewis’ Rotting Hill (1948) describes the unloved aspect of the Hill following the Second World War, when ‘hundreds of streets in London were uninhabited … the houses shuttered and fireless. In the damp winters the fungoid condition, the dry rot, developed in the beams, joists, architraves, jambs, window-frames, floorboards of these unlived-in places.’
G. K. Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) is set in 1984 and concerns a feudal-style system applied to our glorious suburbs. ‘Clapham with a city guard. Wimbledon with a city wall. Surbiton tolling a bell to raise its citizens. West Hampstead going into battle with its own banner.’ The novel features the prominent landmark of the Campden Hill Water Works, built in 1857 and demolished in 1970.
Colin MacInnes’ London Trilogy, City of Spades (1957), Absolute Beginners, (1959) and Mr. Love and Justice (1960) depicts the tensions between the existing population and the emergent black immigrant culture of the 1950s who ‘organised their own underground of life and of such joy as may be snatched from an unwelcoming mother country’.
Anthony Powell’s 12 novel collection, Dance to the Music of Time, describes the brilliant but conceited novelist manqué X Trapnel in Books Do Furnish a Room (1971), who finds temporary refuge from creditors in the Ufford hotel; ‘a wartime accommodation of a semi-secret branch of the Polish army in exile, come down in the world like many such Bayswater or Notting Hill establishments … laundry impounded from time to time, until satisfactory settlement of the weekly account.’
Martin Amis, a long term resident of Notting Hill, uses it as a backdrop for The Rachel Papers (1973), portraying a druggie student ambiance of ‘coffee bars, pinball arcades and party-hunts, of looking for girls and wet daydreams’. In London Fields (1989), set entirely in Notting Hill, petty hooligan Keith Talent lives on the 11th floor of Windsor House, better known as Trellick Tower. His home-from-home is the seedy Black Cross pub on the corner of Portobello Road; which in reality is the perfectly respectable Shannon’s Market Bar, previously named The Golden Cross.
Chelsea features in many novels as a Bohemian quarter of artists’ studios. In Radclyffe Hall’s The Forge (1924), a well-to-do painter arrives in the traditional artist’s mode of transport, a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce. One of his accommodation requirements is a bathroom with a decent porcelain bath and a parquet floor.
Wyndham Lewis’ Apes of God (1930) satirizes an artist’s colony. ‘Dan went along a tunnel that was an arched way beneath flats. And in the twilight he came to an empty terrace, upon one side of which was a row of liver-umber brick, geraniumed cottages. Confronting them was a high and gloomy wall, it filled the terrace with premature darkness. Above it Dan could see the tops of the windows of formidable studios. These were the gardens he was to visit. A great nest of women Apes! The studios were secluded.’
Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story, The Wrong Box (1889) describes a dingy artist’s studio in Norfolk Street, known jocularly by characters as ‘Norfolk Island’: ‘neither a long, a handsome, nor a pleasing thoroughfare. Dirty, undersized maids-of-all-work issue from it in pursuit of beer, or linger on its sidewalk listening to the voice of love. The cat’s-meat man passes twice a day. An occasional organ-grinder wanders in and wanders out again, disgusted. In holiday-time, the street is the arena of the young bloods of the neighbourhood, and the householders have an opportunity of studying the manly art of self-defence. And yet Norfolk Street has one claim to be respectable, for it contains not a single shop – unless you count the public-house at the corner, which is really in the King’s Road.’
The most picturesque description of a bohemian artist is found in Theodore Watts-Dunton’s Aylwin (1898), which describes the painter Mr. D’Arcy, documenting D G Rossetti’s house and studio in Cheyne Walk. The garden contained a menagerie with an Indian bull and ‘populated with several kinds of animals such as are never seen except in menageries or in the Zoological Gardens. Wombats, kangaroos, and the like, formed a kind of happy family.’
In Joyce Carey’s The Horse’s Mouth, 1944, the artist Gulley Jimson comes out of prison and finds a houseboat to live on in the fictional area of Greenbank, a cross between Old Chelsea and Chiswick Reach. Down river from Oxford, he sees the waters bring as a more intellectual atmosphere. ‘Greenbank, which belongs more to the upper river cultural sphere. In Greenbank they drink in Plato and Ruskin with the Oxford bath water.’ Later he describes some boats near his own, ‘We’d got to the railing next to the motor factory and Barberry Creek. It was half-tide, and there were three barges cockeye on the serge-blue mud. So they tilted on the ramp. Like stranded whales with their waists in the water. And a brazier full of orange hot coke making a hay-green high light on their snouts.’ And not so different to Cheyne Walk today.
West London and the Borough has been home to, and a hunting ground for, writers through the ages and, with its ever shifting diverse character, will no doubt keep inspiring literary gems. So be careful who you’re chatting next to in Starbucks, they might just be taking it all down.