Written by Stan Moorcroft, City Living Local Life
Notting Hill and Portobello Road have been feeding writers, both creatively and figuratively, since the Edwardian era. From G. K. Chesterton and Wyndham Lewis to Colin MacInnes and Martin Amis, the area has provided the inspiration for numerous literary dramas. Whilst liquor from a number of local pubs, sadly some now demolished, has served to inspire many a great writer.
Such was the theme of Tom Vague’s entertaining and informative Literary Walk: significant writers with connections to the area reads like a who’s who in the world of letters. Much less well-known than Bloomsbury, west London’s Campden Hill too boasted a literary set that, besides Wyndham Lewis, included Ezra Pound, Joseph Conrad, John Galsworthy and Ford Madox Ford. The Magazine of Vorticism ‘Blast’ was produced in this area, containing contributions from an emerging talent, T. S. Eliot.
Ford Madox Ford’s English Review, based at 84 Holland Park Avenue saw contributions from Chesterton, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, H. G. Wells, Rebecca West and even Leo Tolstoy.
Perhaps the most significant address on the tour is 22 Portobello Road, Eric Blair/George Orwell’s first London home after resigning from the Colonial Service. Significant in that it was from here that Orwell set out to go, ‘Down and Out in Paris and London;’ a journey that saw him morph from Eric Blair, colonial policeman, into George Orwell, documenter of social conditions and committed left-wing writer. From this address Orwell’s literary career was launched.
The tour was full of far too many entertaining vignettes to include here, however it was fascinating to hear that Orwell’s landlady, Mrs. Craig’s middle class pretensions influenced ‘Keep the Aspidistra Flying’.
Travelling North up Portobello we came to a Dickens’ Residence, 52 Chepstow Villas, the early 20th century home of Charles’s grandson Henry and his novelist daughter Monica. Tom gave a wonderful fictional description of the area quoting Monica from her novel ‘The Heart of London’: “Most of the houses had degenerated into rooming houses, full of alcoholic boxers…The streets began to be a centre for all kinds of strange occult sects, with weird signs on the doors; failures and revolutionaries and penniless students and odd potty people lived there.”
As we headed further north the names of significant writers, indeed of whole literary movements, such as the Notting Hill existentialist scene, became the theme. Writers mentioned included Colin Wilson, John Braine, Michael Moorcock, John Arden, Michael Horovitz, and Alan Sillitoe. Such was the breadth of creative spirit that was nurtured and fermented in the area.
Finally books famous for their connection to Notting Hill and Portobello, G. K. Chesterton’s ‘The Napoleon of Notting Hill’ and Colin MacInnes’ late 50s London trilogy, including ‘Absolute Beginners.’ The first an absurdist fantasy, curiously set in 1984, the others a depiction of the harsh realities of racism in 1950s London. Not bad bookends for an area of less than a mile in West London.
This was a tour I’m glad I did not miss.
You still have two more chances to attend the Literary Walk hosted by Tom Vague: Friday 26 and Sunday 28 June at 2:30pm (90 minutes). Visit the InTRANSIT Festival website to book your FREE tickets (limited availability!).