Tom Hodgkinson: The bohemian spirit is alive and well


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The Independent Online

While our image of Notting Hill today may be of a wealthy person's retreat, the area had a more bohemian and radical reputation when I was growing up. A combination of West Indian culture and a punky vibe made it irresistibly glamorous and edgy to me and my friends. It was the land of sound systems, skateboarders, the Clash, the Westway, the Mutoid Waste Company, the carnival and head shops on Portobello Road. It was home to Rough Trade (where I worked for a year when I was 21), Whole Earth foods, second-hand clothes shops and stalls on Portobello Green run by artists. It was the Notting Hill of Jimi Hendrix and of John Michell, the celebrated late cosmologist and author. I suppose it represented creative freedom.

The area has changed somewhat in recent years and has turned into a new Chelsea, beloved of barristers, bankers and ad execs with the incomes to support the gigantic mortgages now needed to buy one of the charming Victorian villas.

However, W11, I think, retains its slightly edgy vibe. When Victoria and I were researching locations for our Idler bookshop and café, it was to Notting Hill that we returned, and one of my plans with the shop was to make a link back to Notting Hill's bohemian past. To my delight, this has happened, and all sorts of fantastic characters have popped up.

One such would be the poet Michael Horovitz. Born in 1935, Horovitz is what you would call a Beat poet, of the school of Allen Ginsberg and Alexander Trocchi. He is famous for putting on a huge sell-out poetry event at the Royal Albert Hall in the 1960s. He came to see us in order to drop off a load of his poetry anthologies and chat. He has a high, flutey voice, is given to wearing orange trainers, and bursts into song when a pretty girl appears. Always broke, he has arrangements with various Notting Hill eateries which will give him, for example, piles of cupcakes at the day's end.

Then there's the glorious, beturbanned Molly Parkin, novelist, raconteur and style icon, whom I met by chance at the University Women's Club. She came and gave a funny and touching talk at the shop. Another visitor is Mike Lessing of the radical paper International Times. He gained notoriety for rolling around naked in paint at a 1960s "happening", and is now an ambassador for the relaunched IT, which you can find online. It features poetry, politics and the likes of Heathcote Williams among contributors. Lessing is an anarchist and I was pleased when he said he approved of our mission to teach English grammar, saying: "Anarchy is merely good grammar."

These are the real poets. And to have such souls hanging out in our bookshop is a real thrill for me, as one of my dreams for the Idler Academy was that it would have an element of San Francisco's City Lights bookshop to it, the spirit of Ginsberg. While it is often said that the offspring of such free spirits rebel against their parents' bohemianism, that is certainly not the case with the children of Parkin and Horovitz: Sophie Parkin is a writer and wit and Adam Horovitz has followed his father into bohemia.

Another Notting Hill character whose spirit I am keen to respect is Michell, the old Etonian Platonist, promoter of sacred geometry and observer of crop circles and other unexplained phenomena. When Michell was alive, I would sometimes visit him in his Powis Square flat, where he could be found at a cluttered table with an ashtray full of roll-ups, a bottle of white wine and piles of intricate geometric drawings. "Hello, Tom, I'm just trying to make six into five!" he might say. John died three years ago but his friend, the graphic designer Richard Adams, is a frequent visitor to our shop, as is the historian John Nicholson, who has given talks here on Michell's life and work. Other radicals who are coming to give talks include Ian Bone of Class War magazine who is always a very funny speaker, and Penny Rimbaud, who was one of the architects of the Stonehenge Free Festival, and then went on to form the punk band Crass, which introduced anarchist politics to a whole generation of young people.

Behind it all is that feeling that Notting Hill is a village with its own psychogeography, an independent free spirit, which goes right back to GK Chesterton's novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill – which I think should be the choice for our first book group.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'