The letter was a call to arms. Evidently THAT film has brought fame and fortune to the "village" of Notting Hill and with it has come higher rents. Chain stores are coming in, threatening to destroy the charm of the place. The rot started when Oddbins was allowed in to Elgin Crescent, despite a petition signed by hundreds. Now the Fluid Juice Bar has also opened. It describes itself as a "fast-expanding chain" and has made alterations to the fascia without planning permission. And there are ugly rumours that a Seattle Coffee place could be opening soon. Ceramica says that we need to stop the juice bar, or at least get rid of THAT fascia, to show landlords how determined we are to preserve the character of our special village.
I had to go. OK, so I was an imposter. But I do live in a village. It's just that my village is a smallish place surrounded by green belt. We have a council estate, five pubs, a post office under threat and aerobics classes on Tuesday afternoons at the old village hall. We had a bank that was opened two afternoons a week but now that's gone. I'd love an Oddbins, actually. Or a Juice Bar. And I would kill for a Seattle Coffee Company. But then there are villages and then there are villages.
So it is off to Notting Hill. The meeting was set for St Peter's Hall at 59A Portobello Road (entrance through the cafe). I am delayed by a man who is staggering around. "Listen to me, just listen to me," he says. He smelt dreadful, and I was glad when he moved on to bothering two women dining alfresco on organic leaves. I think they gave him some money. Rich pickings.
I eventually found Portobello Road and the church. By now I am a bit late and find there are people milling round outside. I accost one of the men. He tells me that I just missed the meeting.
Me: Oh, no! So what did you decide?
Him: Not a lot really.
Me: What do you mean?
Him: Not a lot.
Me: What's going to happen then?
Him: We're not going to drink today.
Him: What meeting do you want?
Me: Notting Hill residents up in arms.
Him: This is Alcoholics Anonymous.
Me: I don't believe you.
Him: You can join us if you want...
The angry meeting had been moved to a bigger church. There were 500 people there, being watched over by a rather nice painting of St Peter. Most of the people were white and looked well off. The women were wearing things that floated and flowed. The men were not wearing suits. Some of them even had that special blur that you acquire if you are rich, successful and a little bit famous. They could all have been extras in the film Notting Hill.
The AA guy would have felt right at home because people kept running to the front to introduce themselves. It was just like Oprah. "I've lived here since 1974!" said one man, to huge applause. "I own the shoe repair shop," said another to wild clapping. A man named JC 001, who had a black beret folded up under his right epaulette, almost brought the house down. "It's all bollocks!" he shouted. Evidently he used to be in the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest rapper in the world.
Actually it was all like an AA meeting, but in reverse. These people are addicted to the idea that Notting Hill is special and they have come together to feed this addiction. "I urge you to go out and kick the bastards!" exclaimed one man. I pulled the arm of the man standing next to me. "Who are we kicking?" I asked. "Who are the bastards?" He looked at me oddly and said that the bastards were the chain stores. What, like BHS? No, he said, like Starbucks. Like, he said, the juice bar. Like McDonald's which, it is rumoured, may open up on Portobello Road.
Then it started to get confessional. A man stood up and admitted to shopping at Woolworth's. In fact, he admitted to liking shopping at Woolworth's. He wasn't all that worked up about the juice bar either. "I mean," he said, "where do you draw the line?" He personally did not like McDonald's but said only tourists would eat there anyway. I laughed at this but I think I was alone.
A Rasta got up and shouted and everyone in that hall looked up sharpish. "You see me here. But you won't see me for long! The rich are taking over. But we are here and they are not pushing us out!" There was huge applause. In fact there was huge applause almost every time a black person spoke. Was the applause dripping with white guilt or did I just imagine it? Radical chic indeed. Notting Hill is in trouble but somehow I don't think it is the chain stores that are to blame.
After the meeting, I went to see the dreaded Fluid Juice Bar for myself. It replaced a rather exclusive florist. Flowers or juice? You'd think the world would be big enough for both but not in Notting Hill. The free market can be such a cruel place. The fascia was white and slick. It didn't look all that horrible to me but then I have actually eaten at McDonald's and so my opinion is clearly suspect. I read the juice bar menu and lingered over Fresh Wheatgrass. "Short and powerful - this one-ounce shot possesses the same nutritional value as 2.5 pounds of vegetables."
At the pub across the way the bitter was being served in clear plastic glasses. The subject was the price of bagels in Notting Hill. "It's like you have to put a down payment on a bagel," said one man. "You can't just buy one out right." Also, he said, there was an acute lack of chopped herring to hand. It was, quite simply, an outrage.
A woman appeared wearing an extremely large, black brimmed hat. (It was 10.30pm.) She wanted to know who had called that meeting. I said that the residents had and that the fax had come from someone named Ceramica. (Sadly, this turns out to be a shop and not a person.) The woman in black breathed a sigh of relief. She had heard that the whole thing had been a put-up job by the council. A conspiracy, if you like. I nodded, not in agreement, but because this was a very villagey thing to have said. Paranoia is essential to every village fete. As I left, the pavement was heaving with people holding plastic glasses. Back home, in my own village, it was dark and silent.
Everyone in Notting Hill hates the film, of course, but cannot stop themselves from constantly referring to it. I actually went to see it earlier in the week on the grounds that everyone had told me that I would love it and that it would make me feel happy. Well, that is a thing, and so I went. I emerged thoroughly depressed.
We are in love with the idea of falling in love, I told a colleague in despair, and any old plot will do. He took up my moan. Whatever happened to chemistry in the movies? He pointed out that many of the classics - Bringing Up Baby was the one he mentioned - revolve completely around chemistry. He says that there is absolutely no chemistry between Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant. Instead there are nude scenes. I agreed, though I don't remember any nude scenes at all.
Lately I find myself surrounded by men behaving like men. It has got to stop. On the Underground I was pinned for 10 horrible minutes amongst a group that had spent the day at the pub. They insisted on sharing their ideas with me, slurring them out in their own special language of swear words.
At the weekend, on the beach, I was surrounded by men playing with balls. There were big balls and little balls, kicked and thrown. Any ball would do, in fact, as long as it almost hit me a number of times.
Then, this week on my regular 9am train, I sat with three men. Two were from New Zealand, one was English. They had an excruciating, long conversation about when the trains left from Charing Cross to Crewe. (They don't.) Then they decided they would not go to Crewe immediately (as if that were possible) and would sight-see instead. There was Leicester Square and Piccadilly. "That's famous," one said.
The other New Zealander spoke up: "Is there a place called Coventry?"
There was a silence, then someone said that there was but that it was not in central London. There was another silence. He spoke again: "It's just that Coventry is the third yellow one on the Monopoly board." His friend thought this was hysterical and giggled all the while he drained his can of Carlsberg.
I just hope they don't end up going to Notting Hill.Reuse content