Notting Hill Carnival in 1975: ‘Co-existence was spontaneous, obvious, organic to the area.’ Photograph: John Hannah/Rex/Shutterstock
18 June 2017 | Ed Vulliamy | The Observer
I was born in 1954, a block away from where mum now lives, on the street in which Jimi Hendrix would die in 1970. These were ramshackle streets then, peeling stucco and rows of bells beside front doors. A contemporary free glossy magazine called The Hill describes the neighbourhood of my youth to its wealthy readers as “a no-go area for sure”. That’s not how I remember things; I think Notting Hill was a special place to grow up.
It had its well established white working class, many of whom lived in poverty described by the politician Alan Johnson in his memoir. It had been largely built by the Irish, who had begun arriving in the mid-19th century and continued to do so. It was settled in the 1940s by refugees from General Franco’s uprising against the Spanish republic, and during the 50s by those arriving from the West Indies on boats such as the Windrush, shipped by then minister of labour, Enoch Powell, to provide a cheap workforce.
All these people amounted to a whole greater than the sum of its parts, infusing Notting Hill with vim and vigour, a special melange. Among my first memories were the race riots of 1958, “teddy boys” streaming out of Ladbroke Grove station to attack our local black people, but Oswald Mosley’s attempt to cash in on those riots and contest the old Labour seat of North Kensington in 1959 was catastrophic for a good reason: there was genuine conviviality between the peoples of Notting Hill, long before anyone invented the word “multicultural” let alone “diversity”. Coexistence was spontaneous, obvious, organic to the area.
As we reached our teens, Portobello Road became the Haight-Ashbury of Europe. Pink Floyd rehearsed in a local church and squats near the spot where Grenfell Tower was later built declared independence, the republic of “Frestonia”. Things lasted at that pitch for about another decade, while the tower was built, until about 1978, when the Clash played a warm-up gig for their worldwide 16 Tons tour to 150 people in Acklam Hall at lunchtime on Christmas Day.