Notting Hill, Actually

After the film Notting Hill, starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, was released in 1999 house prices in that area of west London shot through the roof. Everyone suddenly wanted to live there. But was the film a realistic portrayal of that part of London - or was it simply the product of the imagination of Britain's most successful screenplay writer in recent years, Richard Curtis?

Hugh Grant strolls down Portobello Road, Notting Hill's most famous street and the site of one of London's best-known markets. Fruit and vegetable stalls line the road, and antique shop windows are stuffed with bric-a-brac. He is in love, of course, with Julia Roberts - well, who wouldn't be? In the film she plays a successful Hollywood actress who, mysteriously, falls for a very English, small-time bookshop owner with a floppy fringe. Grant can't believe his luck - and who can blame him!

This unlikely plot is as unlikely as the Notting Hill that appears in the film. The real Notting Hill is a little different. This area of London is one of the most multi-racial in the capital, but the film features only one black person in its entire 120-minutes. In one scene, snow falls evenly on the ground like a carpet of talcum powder. Sorry, but I lived in London for years and years and I never saw snow falling like that. And what about all those Americans using perfectly idiomatic British English? The truth is that the film, like most of Richard Curtis's biggest hits, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and his latest box office smash, Love Actually, depict a Britain that does not really exist.

The real Notting Hill is a much more interesting place than the movie that bears its name. And to understand this complex area we need to dive into a little local history.

Roots, riots, reggae

In 1739, Admiral Vernon captured the city of Peurto Bello in the Caribbean as part of the expansion of the British Empire. To commemorate this event, Portobello Farm, and later Portobello Road were named in a sleepy west London village, Notting Dale. The scenery that surrounded the village comprised of a few cornfields, a meadow and an occasional lane. But after the Great Western Railway opened in 1838 the whole of the west of London began to develop rapidly. The Ladbroke family (who later gave their name to the area just north of Notting Hill called Ladbroke Grove) commissioned high society architects to build housing for the rich. Upper-middle class families quickly took up residence.

In the years after World War II, these large houses were divided up into smaller rental units. In the nineteen fifties, citizens of the crumbling British Empire were invited to the UK to help rebuild post-war society. One of the most popular areas for newly arrived immigrants from the West Indies was Notting Hill.

But not everyone was happy to see them arrive. In May 1958, a carpenter from Antigua, Kelso Cochrane, became the first black man to be murdered in racial violence in Britain. Later, during the August bank holiday weekend of that year, a crowd of white racist thugs attacked a Swedish woman on her way home from work. She was married to a black West Indian, and the thugs didn't like it. The police had to escort her home after she had been pelted with stones and bottles. The incident sparked off the worst race rioting that Britain had ever seen.
For a vivid description of these events read Colin Macinnes' excellent novel, later turned into a feature film starring David Bowie, called Absolute Beginners (1959).

But these sad events had a positive outcome. The Notting Hill carnival, now the largest street party in Europe, was first organised in 1959 to help repair relations between blacks and whites. Today, over one million people visit the area during the August bank holiday weekend. And don't worry - it's perfectly safe. You will spend, if you want, three whole days dancing to calypso and reggae music and having the time of your life.

Peter Gentle


(to) stroll - walk leisurely (spacerować, przechadzać się)
bric-a-brac - ornamental objects valued for their antiquity, rarity, or originality (bibeloty, starocie)
small-time - modest or minor level of achievement (drugorzędny)
floppy - limp, loose, hanging (opadający)
fringe - front part of hair that hangs down in the front (grzywka)
scene - episode in a film (epizod, scena)
sleepy - quiet, inactive (senny)
(to) commission - place an order for sth (zamówić, zlecić)
(to) crumble - fall apart (popaść w ruinę)
thug - hooligan, ruffian, violent male (zbir, oprych)
(to) pelt - throw (obrzucić kogoś czymś)
(to) spark off - ignite, begin suddenly (wywołać)
cornucopia - abundance (róg obfitości)
bargain hunter- sb looking for a good buy (amator okazyjnych zakupów)