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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Notting Hill

Globe and Mail Update
Friday, December 20, 2002
From the Field
McLaren Leah


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Pictures from Notting Hill

A traditional sign hangs outside the Hillgate public house, thought to be near the site of an old tollgate, in the Notting Hill area of London, Thursday July 13, 2000. Supporters of Britain's old pub signs, which traditionally commemorate a royal or aristocratic personage, or an area's historic heritage, industry, sporting heroes or flora and fauna, have been protesting against the outbreak of modern names and signs, which do not reflect history or character.
Photo: Alastair Grant/AP

Actress Julia Roberts arrives to attend the premiere of the movie "Notting Hill" at the Odeon, Leicester Square, in London, Tuesday April 27, 1999. The British tabloids and even one of the broadsheets newspapers devoted considerable space and energy this week to coverage of the fact that Roberts sports unshaven arm pits.
Photo: Peter Jordan/AP


Christmas shopping in Notting Hill is a trying experience. The temptation to spend the equivalent of my monthly salary on a set of raw silk toss pillow covers for my mother is strong. Everything is so pretty and bohemian chic.

Buy me, says the hand-hewn raw rubber yoga mat from Thailand, I'm not an indulgence, I'm evidence of your spiritual well being.

That's the thing about Notting Hill. It's the most effective consumer vortex I've ever known. Somehow its gritty, hippy, fruit-market atmosphere makes you feel less ashamed about spending 400 quid on a pink suede bean-bag chair. It's a yuppie apologist zone.


When I moved to London last winter I hadn't seen the romantic comedy Notting Hill. Six months later, after living a ten minute walk from the famous 'hood, I still hadn't seen it. People askd me all the time if I'd "seen the movie." The good burghers of Notting Hill are extremely proud the fact that their little village became the title and setting of a Hollywood film.

Of course they don't tell you they're proud. These are English people after all - no time for all that Hollywood nonsense. Not the least bit thrilled by it. Right.

First they'll ask you if you saw the movie, then, when you say you actually haven't, they'll act surprised and a flash of disappointment will cross their face, then they'll say something dismissive like, "Oh, well, probably for the best. Rather a silly little movie anyway." What they really want to talk about is real estate - ask them how much they could sell their flat for now as opposed to the days before a fictional Hugh Grant lived next door.

As self-satisfied as it is, there is something undeniably seductive about Notting Hill. It is, I think, the hippest, smuggest and most shamelessly hypocritical urban village on earth. It is the champagne socialist capital of the universe. A trustafarians paradise. A place where the rich, famous, beautiful and decadent gather in organic cafes to drink juice made from fallen apples.

There is a pleasant amount of grit left too. Just enough hooded scowling teenagers, kebab shops, and scooter thefts to keep things feeling rough and real. Notting Hill will never fully gentrify because it is shot through with council housing estates (tall, eyesore buildings housing the neighborhood's working-class residents), and because of its many ugly 1960s era constructions, which rose up in the craters left from the Blitz.

The list of celebrities who live here is as exclusive as it is varied. The village tends to attract the veggie/yoga/rock 'n roll offspring types like Stella McCartney, Jade Jagger and her slightly less famous Dad, Mick.

These fabulous creatures tend to live in great four storey brownstones painted on the outside in pastel colours, with Japanese gardens in the back, a safe distance from the nearest government housing estate. It's hard to walk through the neighborhood without stumbling across someone famous. Just the other day I saw Claudia Schiffer getting into a black porche outside the Agnus B. shop.


But I don't come to Notting Hill for the stars. I come for the soap. Specifically to this little underground shop on a side street where, for the amount of money it costs to feed a family for a week in sub-Saharan Africa, you can have cute little message engraved on bars of handmade soap (the perfect stocking stuffer). Afterward, I will go have a gluten-free veggie pate sandwich with milk thistle juice to alleviate my guilt. That's what Notting Hill is for.

And by the way, I eventually did see the film. Rented it just the other day. What did I think? Rather a silly little movie. Not the least bit thrilling.


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