Portobello Road is London’s most iconic street and a unique place to live and visit. Despite the waves of gentrification, soaring rents and the recent arrival of High Street chains, its Bohemian, anarchic, creative spirit still survives. Idler Academy manager Julian Mash, a former bookseller at the famous Travel Bookshop, meets the traders and shopkeepers, film-makers and fashionistas, punks, promoters and poets who make Portobello what it is. From his encounters with famous residents like Damon Albarn and life-long market traders like Peter Cain there emerges a vivid and sometimes surprising picture of one of Britain’s most famous neighbourhoods.
This fascinatingly illustrated book, published by Frances Lincoln, explores how Portobello Road has been at the centre of trends as diverse as racial integration, health food, vintage fashion, the property boom and the life and death of record shops. Where could you find a fruit and veg stallholder who was once a boxing champ and star of Pasolini’s Canterbury Tales? A dentist whose patients included Griff Rhys Jones and Eddie Izzard, and whose surgery doubled as a performance space played by KT Tunstall and Robyn Hitchcock? A nursery school visited by Muhammad Ali? Where else but Portobello Road.
Julian describes the transformation of Portobello Road from a market street known as the Lane to a district where even a modest cottage can cost £5 million. In the 1950s, stallholders pushed barrow loads of produce from Covent Garden to Portobello Road, and could sell nine tonnes of potatoes in a week. When West Indian immigrants arrived, they found rooms to let with the infamous caveat “No coloureds, no wogs, no coons, no Irish, no dogs” and racist Teddy Boy gangs ruling the streets. The tensions led to the riots of the ‘60s and ‘70s, but also played out in more enduring ways: reggae and calypso exploded into the British music scene, and Europe’s greatest street party, the Notting Hill Carnival, was born. Portobello had by now become an extraordinary cultural melting pot. Cleo Butterfield and Paul Breuer pioneered the vintage clothing scene, while military chic was born at the legendary boutique, I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet. The health food revolution began at Seed, a pop-up restaurant in a cramped basement frequented by the likes of John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Terence Stamp and Marc Bolan. Indie record shops such as Rough Trade and Honest Jon’s were spiritual home to a generation of rock stars – from Hawkwind to The Clash, from Killing Joke to Damon Albarn – and a place of pilgrimage for The Ramones, Patti Smith and Talking Heads.
Once a crucible for creative innovation and social revolution, Portobello has now become home to chains, brands and the super-rich. But in interviews with over 60 Portobello stalwarts, Julian shows how the vibrant and eclectic soul of this unique street lives on – if you know where to look.
Every copy ordered through the Idler comes with a free pencil and a beautiful postcard of the book cover designed by Alice Smith.