I only used to come here for the Carnival. Westbourne Grove, Portobello Road and even Kensal Green were a strictly annual affair, packed streets to shuffle through, shops shut and pubs packed.
It could be a disheartening experience, too. Arriving full of energy, the first task would be to meet up with friends who were a) inevitably on the other side of the carnival and b) possessed of some kind of inexplicably degenerate musical taste. Time and again, the most beautiful sounds would boom from street corners, and I’d attempt to linger, only to be dragged forcefully along to the Ministry of Sound or Sancho Panza (if there’s anything worse than house, it’s Latin house) where I’d reluctantly shuffle around, silently hating my friends and wishing I was listening to reggae.
This tendency reached its apogee the year that I went with Rob and Sharon and we followed a techno float around the carnival route, the only float I could see whose crew and audience were entirely white (though of course hardly short of dreadlocks). It was like being the White Man in Hammersmith Palais year after year. In my mind I can still see a small, mythical static, just a few large speakers, playing roots and dub. A young man toasts while the old dreads sit around smoking collie weed and nodding slowly to the righteous riddim… of course everybody says the Carnival’s not really about reggae any more. I stopped going after the year I had to pull S out of a rowdy crowd at the Good Times system and nearly got into a fight. And that year there were only half a million people there.
If I ever ventured west out of August, the place seemed somehow naked without the floats and systems. Portobello was exotic enough for an N9 boy, with shops like Wong Singh Jones and the punky market under the Westway that wasn’t crowded with eurogoths like Camden. But visits were far and few between. Settling in Stoke Newington, Brick Lane felt more like my scene: West was even more foreign than South.
Now I find myself within spitting distance of the Westway, the top end of Portobello Road (near enough for two of us to carry a second-hand bureau home) and Maida Vale. But I’m also in a place without a name. Previously, I’ve had ‘Stoke Newington’, ‘Greenwich’ or ‘Brockley’ to put between my street address and the postcode: the true sign of a Zone 2 snob is that they live not just in London but in a place with an identity of its own, often with the imaginative help of local estate agents. Here, I simply fill in my address as ‘London…’. The A-Z says ‘West Kilburn’, but Kilburn proper is more or less due north. The bus stop says ‘Maida Hill’ and we get the Wood & Vale through the door: if you bought a house round here, the estate agent’s amenities pack would have Maida Vale tube on the map but not Queen’s Park. But it’s certainly not Maida Vale: rather than ubiquitous mansion blocks, three-storey terraced houses subdivided into flats are the norm around here.
To compensate, I learn local facts. Local Fact #1: Joe Strummer played at the pub round the corner with the 101ers, before the Clash were even formed. And if there’s a ‘here’ here, it’s the Chippenham. Grocers where you can buy a red pepper at ten o’clock at night, a hardware store and a bakers, barbers and dry cleaners even. Creole, Thai and Lebanese restaurants. A constant flow of people day and night, a school and a college, bus routes into town.
At Christmas, L bought me a handful of badges with the Trellick Tower on, Erno Goldfinger’s ‘brutalist masterpiece’ that like the Barbican complex is one of the few high-rise apartment blocks to have survived London’s apocalyptic rage at elevated living to become some kind of modernist exemplar. Of course, looking casually at the image, it could just as easily be the Balfron Tower, the nearly identical one in Poplar, which Goldfinger built first and even briefly lived in to demonstrate his confidence in the new manner of housing proles. Unlikely, though: even the new new East End hasn’t reached the Blackwall Tunnel Northern Approach Road yet.
You see a lot of the Trellick in Much Ado About a Minor Ting, and west London is important filmic as well as musical territory. The first black British feature film, Horace Ove’s Pressure takes place along the Harrow Road and the Grand Union Canal. Isaac Julien’s Territories, one of the key experimental films of the 1980s, brings Carnival, race, class and the politics of local housing together in an overlapping DJ mix. It’s all a long way from the carefully restored white terraces and shopkeepers of Notting Hill. But buying a copy of Charlie Phillips dark and intriguing book of photographs Notting Hill in the Sixties (you’ll have seen his famous portrait of a mixed-race couple in the Tate’s How We Are or on the cover of London Is the Place for Me Vol.2) in the very same bookshop still trading on its moment of Hollywood fame, you realise that even radical history eventually finds its realisation in the price of a home.
But the west is no longer what it was. Take Nathan Barley. When Charlie Brooker originally wrote the character in 1999, he had West London written all over him. ‘A twenty something wannabe director living in Westbourne Grove’, he was instantly recognisable as one of the post-Trustafarian generation of moneyed pricks who had completed the cycle of regentrification of Notting Hill, filling its bars and restaurants with their self-regarding yammer. By the time of his 2005 TV debut, however, there was clearly no place for a Cunt but Shoreditch: East London had been fully transformed into the only natural habitat of privileged, posing, talentless wankers. The Mighty Boosh are exceptional in remaining funny after moving to Shoreditch, while in some kind of weird reverse-Dorian-Gray effect, Noel Fielding becomes more and more of a twat in real life.
And it’s this, at last, that makes West London liveable. Its moment is over, its history, for the moment stalled. There are no more Napoleons in Notting Hill. No panicky Harlesden-is-the-new-Willesden Time Out specials about where to live. No mass-scale conversion of dead industry into overpriced living space. It’s not unapproachably posh: some of it you can even afford to live in. Like the rest of London, council estates and Victorian housing interlock in the same easy-uneasy jigsaw. It all feels, somehow, more like real life.