The Slow Death of Portobello














The ‘Bookman’ of Portobello hands me a flyer.

    It concerns a proposal from something called ‘The Westway Trust’

    There’s a murky picture of a modish city landscape.

    ‘Is this what you want for Portobello Market?’ goes the headline.

    I gaze at an ‘elevated restaurant’ – in concrete and glass and foliage. All mod cons. Young creatives whizz across the surrounding piazza.

     What fresh hell is this?

    ‘The Westway Trust are consulting with the community on a major redevelopment by the Westway flyover and their vision to rebrand the Market as ‘Portobello Village’.

  This stuff is everywhere. Designer fibs, whose subtext is so insolently transparent. Any fule kno it means only one thing. Something good will be trashed by something bad. In this case, a vital, unique, richly various, vibrant culture by a moribund, dull, white, corporate one.

  The Portobello Market by the Global Market.

  This Trust want to rebrand it as a ‘village’, a version of urban pastoral. Another gated, exclusive, divisive, manicured lawn. These ‘villages’ are mushrooming all over the place. Village butchers. Village Cup Cakes. ‘West Village’ fashion. Well, we don’t want one. We’ve already got a grove, Ladbroke Grove. We don’t want a village green. We’ve already got a green, Portobello Green. We don’t want a ‘Farmer’s Market’ flogging very expensive organic turnips to Notting Hillbillies. We’ve already got Portobello Market flogging verycheap inorganic fruit and much else to the local community.

  ‘We’ve got to do something!’ says the ‘Bookman’.

  I check the flyer again.

  Let’s unpick a few key ‘concepts’ here, though it is like shooting the proverbial fish in the tank. ‘Trust’  – noun – ‘lack of trust’, as in ‘untrustworthy’. The behaviour of adder fanged, fork tongued, snake oiled, devious, duplicitous, traitorous, meretricious, oleaginous, lying bastards. That area. ‘Consulting’ – verb – the present relentless – ‘not consulting’, sitting round a blue-sky table, nodding like rear window dogs, and then doing what you were going to anyway. ‘Shafting’. ‘Community’ – noun – a cosy meringue abstraction – as in ‘Big Society’ or ‘we’re all in this together’. As in ‘there’s no such thing as society’ We’re at war to the death.. of liberal England. ‘Major redevelopment’ – a significant, traumatic wheeze, whereby a much loved, public site is turned into into a terrifically dysfunctional, probably private space. ‘Vision’ – noun – no vision. A complete absence thereof. Blind greed.

  Blake’s Moloch. 

  I plough on. It doesn’t get better. The present excellent market stalls will be replaced by the above Flying Food Emporium. We’ve already got a boatload of bijou eateries. This one will offer ‘fine dining’. Ah. Assonance. Here the well healed can nibble small meals off big plates. There will also be some ‘High End Housing’. More tumescent follies thrusting up into city skies? And ‘Westfield style units’ – a triple verbal atrocity – will ‘reconfigure’ the area – as in desecrate. 

This is where language goes to die.

Shut up! Shut up!

 ‘We’ve got to protest!’ says the Bookman.

 Have we? Again? Can I be arsed with another futile gesture? I’ve been to waving banners at demos for nigh on forty years.

 ‘Please care for the poor an vulnerable!’ they always said.

 Fat chance. Moloch seems invincible.

  Even in this neighbourhood.

  First they came for our community school, Holland Park Comprehensive. I taught there for 35 years. It reflected the inner city, the old Portobello, the old Grove. Wild, thrilling, terrifying, poor, rich, boho, romantic, ramshackle, louche, brave – with all gods’ children. This irked many, who dubbed the place a ‘Socialist Eton’, the teachers the ‘enemies within’, busy peddling those loony counter cultures. The school must be pedagogically cleansed. How? The usual tactics. Acquire a demon head to ‘turn it around’, sack a hundred NUT teachers, replace them with tufty corporates in sharp suits, enforce uniforms which make the inmates resemble estate agents, rid the building of its more unsightly paupers and erect a state of the art cutting edge glass palace for a cool £100 million.

 Serving the corporate Culture. Mammon.

 Bang goes the neighbourhood!

 ‘It’s all connected’, David Simon of ‘The Wire’ reminds us.

 Why did it take me so long to suss these things?

 But surely the Grove can survive…

 Well, it doesn’t look good.

 Let me take you down the new Portobello Road.

 It is slowly morphing into a Richard Curtis film, ‘Smug Actually’. The former various thoroughfare now looks like anywhere, with its manifold coffee bars and juice bars and nail bars and private gyms and charity shops and organic cafes and ‘Toe To Top Topiaries’ and ‘Shabby Chic’ Shops and Converse and Jack Wills and Sainsburys and Tescos .. all blooming like tumours. 


 Let’s start at the top on the corner of Westbourne. What happened to those market stalls? Gone. They’re now something called ‘All Saints Spitalfields’. Was this the beginning of the end? A crepuscular fashion emporium, where the rich can revolt into style and look like the Strokes for a grand. Working Men’s Boots – distressed! £200! A snip! And we’ve already got our ‘All Saints’, a church, a more spiritual place. We’ve even got an All Saints Road, a legendary, if volatile, street, now sadly clobbered with gentrification.


 To that essential laundrette on the corner of Elgin. Gone.It’s now something called ‘Domusnova’. Plasma screens pimp trillion pound dwellings. ‘An achingly cool snapshot of carefree urban style’ says one. ‘Two thousand a week’ says another. ‘An awesome, bohemian flat’ says a third, ‘eclectic, eccentric and bursting with personality – not for the fainthearted’. Not half.

 You want to lob a brick through a window.

 It’s enough to drive you to drink.

 Well, you better not go into any of the more recent, fashionable hostelries. They’ve also been reconfigured and ‘distressed’. And so will you be, when you’re fleeced for a Merlot under their elegantly wasted candles and chandeliers.

 Where’s that old toyshop, beloved for so long by so many children? Gone. It’s now something called ‘The Kitchen & Pantry’. ‘Our concept (sic) is great coffee’ – as opposed to what?’ Here gym bunnies and creatives and aspirationals sip smoothies and lattes, their chatter punctuated by the promiscuous use of mockney and ‘kind of likes’, as they network or schmooze or fail to write novels on their latest Apples.

 To The Electric Cinema. What’s on? ‘Fifty Shades’. Of course it is. For £30 quid you can go with your latest squeeze and sink into heavy petting sofas and not watch very bad films. This used to be the best cinema on the planet. For tuppence you could watch wondrous triple bills. Eisensteins and Bergmans and Truffauts and Fred and Gingers and Mexican noir, Polish wrist – slashers, and all night W C Fields, while the odd rodent scuttled across your neck or dined on your toes and passing derelicts drank themselves daft during Tarkovskys.

  ‘Jesus and I thought I was fucked!’

  Syd Barett once occurred there – incarnate and transcendental.

  Past the Sally Army. Still here. Still a safe haven for the casualties of the corporate culture and surely to be soon trashed by it.

 They’re flogging a dead duck – kindness, compassion. 

 Kindness doesn’t seem to cut it any more. 

 Compassion seems a little surplus.


 To those record shops, where I wasted half my life.

 ‘Intoxica’? Gone. It now flogs trinkets.

 ‘Minus Zero No Limits’? Gone. It now flogs teddy bears to the spoiled.

 ‘Rough Trade’? And the wonderful Nigel? Still somehow here, still playing the sounds of the city – a vital, necessary, significant, political, cultural centre. ‘When the mode of the music changes the walls of the city shake,’ as Plato or Ginsberg or the Fugs or Mr Natural once said.


  But for how much longer?


  To ‘Honest Jon’s’, near our threatened Flyover.

  Still also somehow here.

 Another sanctuary of sound, of spiritual nourishment. Where else can you hear bone conducting Dub or Swamp blues or Jump Jive or Moroccan folk or keening Appalachian ballads or Ska or Dubstep or righteous searing southern soul or Professor Longhair or Memphis Minnie or King Tubby or Lester Young or Billie Holiday or Doctor Alimantado or ‘Half – Pint Jaxon and the Harlem Hamfats.’ Children get your culture! Indeed. My daughters did. They learned more from a three-minute record than they ever did in school.

  Does ‘The Westway Trust’ have the ‘Harlem Hamfats’ in its sights?

  Does it plan to lay waste to such cathedrals of culture?  

  Like they did to ‘The Flyover Club’ under Westway? Another hub for all the community. Gone. I’ve been to so many local, wonderful gigs there – the Trojans, Aswad, bits of the Clash, The Rotting Hill Mob. I had three birthdays there – the 40th, 50th and, last month, my 70th. God’s Jukebox played throughout and we danced like no one was watching. Bliss. Gone. 

 Are our dancing days done?

 Our midnight frolics no more?

 Are the good times all gone?

 I walk to the end of Portobello and check out the murals, which depict the rich past of this extraordinary neighbourhood. It’s roots. Surely Moloch can’t get to this? Deracinate and airbrush its very history? If they get the Portobello, they’ll get anything.

 Well, they probably have.

 It doesn’t look good.

 I see the future and it’s corporate. I see bad moons rising. I also have ‘visions’. More William Blake than ‘Westway Trust’.

 Moloch throws ever more malign shadows 

 I wander down the chartered streets of Portobello and gaze on the black windows of Cherokees as they charge past High End Houses and fancy mansions on the Hill and gated communities and the derelict buildings of the disenfranchised.

And an ‘elevated restaurant’.

Private places trumping Public spaces 

The slow death of a whole culture.

The ‘Bookman’ of Portobello puts on some jumping jive.

 ‘We’ve got to do something ….’


Ian Whitwham
Pic: Mike Lesser

Guardian article: Monday 6th April 2015
Save us from the developers’ vision of an antiseptic London
















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14 Responses to The Slow Death of Portobello

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