Alan Johnson introduces his memoir, This Boy, our Non-Fiction Book of the Month for March…
This Boy is a story about three people, a period and a place.
The people are my parents, Lily and Steve, and my sister Linda. The period is that monochrome decade the 1950’s and the place is Notting Hill.
I’ve given up complaining about the imprecision of calling my part of West London, Notting Hill. We never called it that. We lived in North Kensington, or, to be more precise, Kensal Town.
Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts were unlikely to be found walking over the Golborne Road railway bridge. Their domain was at the other end of Portobello Road, or The Lane as we called it.
But at some stage, Notting Hill became the generic name for the entire patch between the Grand Union Canal and Holland Park Road.
The street I was born into is famous and notorious. Famous because of Roger Mayne‘s photographs. As a young photo-journalist Mayne spent five years recording the squalor but also capturing the vibrancy of slum dwellings that had been ‘condemned’ as unfit for human habitation twenty five years before his photographs were taken. It was one of Roger’s images of Southam Street that adorned the cover of Absolute Beginners when the book was published in 1959.
Notoriety arrived in the same year when Kelso Cochrane was brutally murdered on the corner of Southam Street. He was a young Antiguan carpenter who’d come to the Mother Country at the government’s invitation to fill the vacancies in the labour market at a time of virtually full employment. To this day nobody has been charged with his murder.
Linda and I went to Bevington Primary school and I was recently invited to go back to the school to participate in in a project by Year 6 pupils on the history of the area. The school is incredibly successful with results that are even more impressive given the range of languages spoken by the parents and the high density of children on free school meals. Going back there gave me a chance to re-create my walk to school fifty seven years after I first trod that route.
Southam Street once straddled Golborne Road. We lived in the Western end with the Earl of Warwick pub on the corner. We called it ‘the good end’. ‘The bad end’ was east of the junction, where Rachman had established an outpost and where, no doubt, it’s residents reversed the designation. The housing was certainly no better whichever end you lived in. Crumbling facades, broken windows at which potato sacks were often used as curtains, basement areas with railings removed for scrap metal and pavements littered with broken glass and dog mess.
The eastern end of Southam Street no longer winds its way up towards Westbourne Park tube station. Replaced by Elkstone Road with its low rise estate and at the junction with Golborne Road, Trellick Tower reaching for the stars.
We’d been moved to another part of W10 by the Rowe Housing Trust and our houses demolished by the time this cathedral to high rise living was built.I’m not sure which housing we’d have been happier in if given the choice between the two.
A stunted version of our end of Southam Street still exists. There, on the corner is the Earl of Warwick except that it’s now been lumbered with a new name, the Earl of Portobello. Pubs were as ubiquitous across “the Town” as they were throughout London. My father played piano in most of them. The horse trough that stood outside many of them used to refresh the animal pulling the cart while the “totter” who drove it was being refreshed with a pint of mild and bitter inside.
The pub is empty, obviously awaiting new owners. I hope they turn it back into a traditional pub but doubt they will. On the wall above the door is a blue plaque denoting the murder of Kelso Cochrane. The blue “Dr Who” police box that stood on the opposite corner has gone. It didn’t do poor Kelso any good.
The house we first lived in, the four of us occupying a single room with no electricity let alone running hot water, was about four doors down from the pub. In place of the houses there are now artists studios. A sleek black Bentley is parked in the kerb. The rail line in and out of Paddington runs behind providing a noisy continuity. The only other remaining structure is Southam House, a small block of flats that was the only bit of new build when I was a kid.
The old iron railway bridge that we’d cross on our way to Bevington is exactly as it was except that it’s been recently re-painted. And absolutely nothing has changed on the Golborne Road except the names of the shops and what goes on inside them. Gone is the pease pudding and saveloy shop on the corner of Warnington Road, Humphreys’ the butcher’s and Holmes the German baker’s from which emanated the glorious aroma of baking bread and doughnuts as we made our way to school. Further down, Renee’s Pie and Mash shop has also disappeared having nourished generations with a square meal for a tanner. It’s now a Lebanese restaurant.
The entrance to Bevington School from Swinbrook Road that we used to use is bricked up. Primary schools have become little fortresses and security necessitates that everybody uses the other entrance in Bevington Road (where Kelso Cochrane resided at the time of his murder).
There is a smart reception area that looks like a hotel and staff busy checking people and pupils in and out. The children wear neat blue uniforms and, in the playground, mix happily in the spaces that I once occupied. There is one significant difference. In my day boys and girls at play were segregated. A white painted line ran across the playground; boys to the north, girls to the south; two strokes of the cane for for any boy that dared to cross the gender-line. (I can’t recall any girls wanting to join us but they would doubtless receive the feminine version of corporal punishment if they did – a ruler vigorously applied to the back of the girls legs.)
It’s time to end this dose of pure nostalgia. The fiercely bright pupils of Bevington circa 2014 have asked their questions and taken their pictures. The Head Teacher has given me a whistle-stop tour. I haven’t time to wander up the Portabello Road where every social class is still represented in segments at intervals of a few hundred yards. I’m told that the Rowe Housing Trust offices where Linda and I would go with our mother to pay the rent every week opening its funny, wooden concertina-style hinged door to the overwhelming smell of disinfectant rising from the brown Lino on the floor, is now the office of Richard Curtis who perhaps best personifies Notting Hill in its latest phase.
We’ve all moved on. My father ran off with the barmaid from the Lads of the Village pub in 1958. My mother died almost exactly fifty years ago. Linda has lived in Western Australia for over thirty years. I make my visit alone, a traveller from a different age remembering how things were and how much worse they could have been.
Alan Johnson, for Waterstones.com/blog
You can Reserve & Collect This Boy from your local Waterstones bookshop (http://bit.ly/1jEWSTg), buy it online at Waterstones.com (http://bit.ly/MzVkhR) or download it in ePub format (http://bit.ly/1jGZLlU)