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The renaissance of Notting Hill

Letter from London

The renaissance of Notting Hill

Today the Notting Hill area in London contains some of the most expensive and desired properties in the capital and has become world-famous for its annual Carnival. But 60 years ago, it was a cesspit of racist violence. The transformation has been little short of miraculous. By Clayton Goodwin

The streets of Notting Hill are quiet now. It is possible to walk from one end of the neighbourhood to the other without experiencing any issues.

Since the release of the film of the same name, in 1999, Notting Hill has acquired a reputation for calm gentility. That may not apply quite so formally to those streets in which the black population predominates – namely, that part of the borough where gentrified redevelopment has not been applied with the same vigour – but it is still a place in which the residents are proud to live.

It wasn’t always that way because to an older generation, the term Notting Hill carried overtones of sub-standard housing, social and moral deprivation, personal anonymity and the worst race riots the United Kingdom has experienced in living memory. That happened in the sweltering final days of 1958 – that is, 60 years ago this coming month.

Aggressive white youths, the now almost mythologised Teddy Boys, egged on by extreme right-wing agitators, hunted down the black people in their midst. When the latter defended themselves, violence ensued on both sides.

The escalation of tension culminated in the murder of Kelso Cochrane, a carpenter/student born in Antigua, stabbed fatally by white ‘yobs’ on 17 May 1959. Incidentally, ‘yobs’ signifies layabout youths (‘yob’ is ‘boy’ spelt backwards), perceived as having less than average intelligence, and prone to violence. For Cochrane’s funeral procession on 6 June 1959, the neighbourhood turned out en masse, or so it seemed, local people of all races swelled by many well-wishers from outside, to mourn his passing (and the passing, too, of their own innocence).

That is where the renaissance, the regeneration, started. Rather, it was one of several landmark events which came together to bring about that renaissance – from which Notting Hill has become accepted as the cultural nursery of the country’s African and West Indian communities, and, ironically, a symbol of inter-racial cultural harmony.

The steps leading to this transition are marked by blue plaques in memory of those citizens who played prominent roles in that development and sited at locations most relevant to the cause. (A blue plaque is a permanent sign installed in a public place in the UK to commemorate a link between that location and a famous person, event, or former building on the site, serving as a historical marker.)

A few weeks ago Kwaku BBM, founder of the Black Music Congress, presented a discussion with a photographic slide-show, ‘London African History Through Representations in The Capital’ at Unite, the Union House in Holborn, Central London.

Kwaku showed representations of streets, buildings and statues associated with well-known names from the capital’s African/Caribbean history, and he introduced me to Jak Beula, CEO of the Nubian Jak Community Trust, who is the man primarily responsible for the blue plaques.

That is how Jak and myself came to be sitting in the office of his Academy adjoining Windrush Square in Brixton, the South London cultural counterpoint of Notting Hill in West London. It was Windrush Day itself (22 June) – exactly 70 years since the Empire Windrush ship docked at Tilbury in what is now recognised as the formal start of mass Caribbean/African immigration to the UK. 

That same afternoon Jak had an invitation to attend a reception hosted by Theresa May, the Prime Minister, at 10 Downing Street. The term Windrush, overlooked for so long, has become so entrenched in contemporary parlance that the country’s sizeable Polish community even refer to their own migration here as the “Polish Windrush”.

Blue plaques flourish

We talked about the forthcoming Notting Hill Carnival, the largest black-led multicultural event of its kind in Western Europe, and probably beyond.

It will be held over the last weekend of August when the streets will certainly come alive with music, noise and jubilation. The blue plaques are ethnically inclusive where that is relevant: they honour both Claudia Jones, the Trinidadian, who introduced the first significant concept of Caribbean Carnival to London, and Rhaune Laslett-O’Brien, a white woman of mixed antecedents, who placed a similar event involving several nationalities in West London.  When Russ Henderson, who was born in Trinidad, led his steel band out of the venue in which they were playing for an impromptu stroll around the surrounding streets, it set the precedent for the Carnival procession.

Jak Beula outlined his own affinity with that locality and its environment. He is of Jamaican heritage, born, raised, educated and matured in Paddington/Notting Hill. He was born there some two years before the current incarnation of the Carnival began in 1965.

Trained and trading in the music industry, he worked in his early years at Ronnie Scott’s in Soho, Britain’s most celebrated jazz club. Music led Jak directly to the concept of the blue plaques. The first hero he so honoured was reggae legend Bob Marley. BBC television filmed the event and by the time it was broadcast two more plaques had been commissioned. Interest caught on quickly. The first three plaques following on from that for Marley were in honour of the Abolition of Slavery (at Luton), to abolitionist and author Mary Prince at Senate House (University of London)
and to Ignatius Sancho, the pioneer of many talents, at the Foreign Office.

Some 38 have now been put up and by the time this Letter is published …. who knows?  There are plans for a major Carnival offering featuring 70 names.

Permission has to be obtained from the owners of the premises on which it is desired to put the plaques. Few refuse – although some may have ideas over the words with which the recipient should be honoured.

Historical oddities

Jak is usually able to oblige. Musing over historical oddities which came out of our conversation – such as Marcus Garvey and Jomo Kenyatta having lived in the same house, 57 Castletown Road, Baron’s Court, Hammersmith, West London, at different times in the 1920s – I left my host to go to his appointment with the Prime Minister.

Outside in Windrush Square all was sweetness and sunshine, and I was minded, not for the first time, to ponder on the strange society and weird times in which we live.

Very young children of all cultures linked hands indiscriminately as they followed a teacher safely across the busy street; teenagers of varied backgrounds chatted and played around on the grassy square; and neighbours/work-colleagues engaged in friendly banter with whomsoever (it didn’t matter with whom, they just did).

Meanwhile the media continued to carry reports of more instances of official beastliness to black citizens of the older generation. Yet however deep the dunghill of the bad may be, flowers of hope and achievement in the shape of blue plaques flourish as evidence of the good that has – and can be – obtained. NA

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