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

    1. – Absolutely brilliant! Says George Orwell, who is (thank god!) transistioning on the internet. And William Blake.
      – There’s life in words. Still. Just about all that’s left. After literature’s had its day.

      Comment by cy lester on 3 April, 2015 at 7:07 pm
    2. Look out for campaign website ‘Westway 23’ ‘Save Portobello’, currently being set up to coordinate the campaign effort. Info on weekly local community meetings and actions being taken to shape the area the way we want it.

      Comment by Sylvia Parnell on 3 April, 2015 at 8:24 pm
    3. Well said Mr Whitwham. I agree absolutely. Every time I walk down portobello it becomes more and more alien to me, and my heart sinks. It’s our home and we should protect and celebrate its uniqueness.

      Comment by Regan Webb on 4 April, 2015 at 12:21 pm
    4. I suppose it’s all slightly inevitable, but your piece says it all, and so eloquently. The pound of profit trumps the penny of humanity; and this unique vibrant special place will soon, no doubt, be just a memory. It is a crying shame.

      Comment by Nick Harvey on 4 April, 2015 at 6:10 pm
    5. You sound awfully like me. ‘Well-heeled’ not well-healed’ though you could make a joke on health which seems the buzzword these days for the spiritually sick. Perhaps we should meet.

      Comment by Jessica Greenman on 5 April, 2015 at 9:53 am
    6. Minus Zero Records was my Dad’s shop, the toy shop in its place fills me with such sadness! 40yrs myself and my parents lived in Portobello, I barely recognise the place now. Never thought my old manor would be such an alien place to me!

      Comment by rebsie fishpond on 5 April, 2015 at 10:47 am
    7. Spot on. The loss of The Flyover as a community hub is a tradgedy, but clearly all part of a bigger plan. London is rapidly becoming a theme park version of itself. We’re still fighting off Orion in Shepherd’s Bush. I was told at the outset, by a young inexperienced representative that some of the areas newer residents were too intimidated to walk through the market in its current form and that they wanted to redesign it so that it would be more inkeeping with Westfield! This meant compulsory purchasing highly succesful and decades old local small family run buisnesses such as Cookes Pie n Mash; Classic Textiles; A1 Fabrics and Zippy’s Dinner, in order to make way for a tower of luxury apartments that will potentially block out most of the light in the market itself.
      Steven Greenhalge could potentially stand for London Mayor when Boris leaves to continue his quest for World domibation. Check out Greenhalge’s history in LBHF and how he tried to broker deals over White City and Queen Caroline Estate. He’s all about selling off London to the highest bidder.

      Comment by lucy Knight on 5 April, 2015 at 11:41 am
    8. Sorry folks. After happy student days in Chelsea in the ’60’s I abandoned it (too) lightly in the ’70’s for pastures new, and came back with a shock in the ’90’s. Just down the road the changes were horrific. Real ‘pads’, student flats and comfortingly grubby pavements replaced by whitewashed doorsteps and box bushes. The one crumbling house in Ladbroke Grove opposite the church (my flat) finally yuppified. Ditto 40 Portland Road, with Polish Maxi and his avocado pear plants. Where was my beloved Portland Arms – happy meeting place of artists, writers, revolutionaries and drunks? I think it became a beauty parlour or something. The flavour of the area was years gone, to the same happy hunting ground as the Isle of Dogs and all that was left of the Docks and London river. Just let it go and think yourself lucky to have experienced it. The new generation won’t want it anyway. Live with your memoriesl

      Comment by Alison Monks-Plackett, on 5 April, 2015 at 1:54 pm
    9. It looked at its best in the snow around Christmas 1967

      Comment by Richard Brown on 24 November, 2017 at 11:13 pm
    10. We just gotta keep on shouting .. And that was a brilliant shout / prod / let’s all try harder .. & not stop .. Cos where do we go after here ? There are tall cranes on every horizon outside my window – Hammersmith & Fulham , apparently, to blame mostly – for now at least … You can count me in .. Thank god for the fruit & veg stalls .. It’s the thing that’s kept it how we want all this time & I for one , don’t want to have done nothing very much , to try & save it !

      Comment by Scarlett King on 5 April, 2015 at 3:03 pm
    11. Very much appreciated Ian’s gloriously well put summary of the rot affecting our neighbourhood. [And it’s not just our locality but other areas must fight their own battles whilst we must concentrate on ours]. I was born in Ladbroke Gardens, half a century ago, and pine for the time when none of us asked whether our friends owned or rented or what their houses and flats were worth.. Jesus, we didn’t actually care about property values or tenures or took much notice of the odd bit of “anti-social behaviour” and just LIVED here. I am bewildered at what the Westway Trust are proposing and we who love and value where we live must use our voices and passions to confront it head on. I don’t agree with Alison that we should just live with our memories or Nick feeling this corporate sanitisation is inevitable. We owe it to our families and neighbours to protect and preserve and treasure our area. Notting Hill, Ladbroke Grove and Portobello had always enjoyed the richer living next to the poorer and at least our combined existing social housing stock permits this balance to exist, but this too is under threat with continuing Right-to-Buy sales of Council flats and the benefit caps leading to social cleansing and bussing social tenants out of borough. The 23 acres of land under the Westway is meant to be in trust for the community – in what way does this horrific vision of roof top cafes and glazed shop frontages benefit the locality? In 2014, according to the Westway Trust’s own company report, they “revalued its investment portfolio following an investment appraisal by external valuers adding over £10m to the Trust’s balance sheet”. So the land meant for use for the community is now suddenly valued commercially at £10m? The cliche “knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing” rings very loud and clear……..
      Shout, bang the table, attend public meetings, share updates and SAY NO to the social bleaching of our streets. I don’t want to buy a tub of primrose breath face cleanser or an artisan sausage costing £7 in the market – I want to buy used Hawaiian shirts for a fiver and old books for 50p and half bruised strawberries in season and a chip pan or maybe just go for a walk and not spend any bloody money at all but just meet up with neighbours for a chat and a catch up – what’s wrong with that?
      Private developer please leave us alone to our madness and lovely chaos – it’s how we like it! See you at the barricades?

      Comment by Annabelle Louvros on 7 April, 2015 at 8:50 pm
    12. […] The slow death of Portobello  (International Times, 02/04/15) […]

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    13. […] The slow death of Portobello  (International Times, 02/04/15) […]

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    14. […] had to dance my way out, when I lived nearby. What a thrilling area it used to be, what with the Portobello Road and Golborne Road market, in which I had a […]

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