"Where are you staying?" asked a sweat-glazed, red-faced Englishman at a party I was attending in London's staid and pristine South Kensington.
"Notting Hill," I replied, feeling a bit proud of the location of the flat I had rented for the month.
"Oh, of course, you're American, Notting Hill... keen on Hugh Grant and the movie, are you?" he slurred smugly.
Could it be that this alleged Londoner had never encountered or been remotely curious about the rich, deep music and counter-culture history of Notting Hill and its Westbourne Grove and Ladbroke Grove sections? Or perhaps he was just giving me the 'For Tourist Dummies' version of his cocktail diatribe.
Cinematic enclaves like The Travel Bookshop and "William Thacker's unrealistically fab flat off Portobello Road" may give some folks a case of the quaints, but they played no part in my decision to park myself in a summer rental in Notting Hill's trendy and up-and-come (present tense) quarter of Westbourne Grove
Having a home in Laurel Canyon -- the upscale bohemian neighborhood that has played raucous party host to The Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Fleetwood Mac -- I was on some level channeling the creatively fertile underbelly of a 'hood. Yet, I longed for someplace a bit more polished and easy-on-the-eyes than edgy hipster E. London areas like Dalston.
And so it turned out that my discovery of 'the real Notting Hill' was serendipity, a happy accident. This is a bourgeois bohemian (in the best of possible ways) quarter that spawned the U.K. underground scene of the '50s, '60s and beyond. It was the stomping grounds of the Teddy Boys and the mods. Its pulsating historic centerpiece: the so-called race riots of the late '50s.
Such watershed moments were depicted in films like Absolute Beginners, and the racy '60s (de rigueur for hipsters) counterculture flick Performance (starring Mick Jagger).
Ladbroke Grove, its North Western point, was the birthplace of The Clash, the booze-doused playground of Lemmy and his band Motorhead. Naturally, such bacchanalian and sybaritic efforts resulted in rock n' roll suicides -- so to speak -- indigenous to the region, such as the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Steve Took of '70s glam duo T. Rex.
In more recent decades, musical wizards like Brian Eno and Damon Albarn set up shop with studios in Ladbroke Grove and Westbourne Grove, respectively. And spitting distance from Albarn's Studio 13, rock gods like Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and Hendrix recorded at a studio that was initially Island Records and later evolved into Trevor Horn's SARM Studios.
But to focus only on these iconic relics would be to diminish the magic of Notting Hill and environs. This neighborhood is alive, vibrant, colorful, stylish and oh so charming with its mostly Victorian townhouses -- some painted (a-la Caribbean) side-by-side in hues from the full spectrum of the rainbow. People chat on stoops, and rare and forgotten psychedelic tunes waft out of flats.
When I look outside the windows of my little second floor dwelling at night, the scene recalls a painting by René Magritte -- surreal and magical with its ambient over-sized street lamps. Painted into it, something of the 'anything is possible.'
That sentiment is echoed in the enthusiasm of the unrehearsed accounts of its true stars -- the local characters of this village. It doesn't take much to get these villagers to perch on their soapboxes and have a nice long chat.
My new Afghan friend who sells bedding on the Portobello market turned me onto a book about non-conformity and creativity in business and introduced me to his favorite Greek restaurant. The Portuguese woman who owns a cafe in Ladbroke Grove proudly described how she bakes her own organic, fruit-juice sweetened, wheat-free pastries. This is after all a neighborhood whose earlier denizens were hippies.
And then there's the coffee barista from New Zealand who's opening up a new bakery with a garden in Westbourne Grove. He enthused, "Notting Hill is alive and exciting, it's the equivalent of being in Hollywood." If I were going to argue, I'd have chimed in that it was more accurately the equivalent of my home neighborhood of Laurel Canyon.
Such special areas possess an almost mystical knack for retaining the pure essence of creative revolutions past, pre-marquee names, agents and high-powered deals.
This is why Notting Hill will continue to attract both talented bohemians on the up-and-up, and 'been there done that' celebrities... for even the Hugh Grants and Julia Robertses of the world need a daily infusion of the inspirational fuel that once jettisoned them to the top.
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