Bits of Books - Books by Title

Notting Hell

Rachel Johnson

(London Times)

When Rachel Johnson moved into W11, she never thought she'd end up among the ultra-wealthy.

I've lived in Notting Hill on and off since 1979 but before you reach for your gun (many find the mere notion of Notting Hill obnoxious since it's not only been taken over by bankers, Tories and Tory bankers, which is as unfunky as it gets, yet it still considers itself hip) I need you to know something.

We bought our house in 1992 for way south of £400,000.

There's no way I could afford to live here unless we'd got on the property ladder here a quarter of a century ago. You can find out from Mouseprice what a smallish house in W11 is worth now but to save you the trouble, our family home has earned more in its lifetime than I ever will and this means I live in a neighbourhood way beyond our joint pay grade. This privilege comes with a heavy price tag. My husband says that when you can't afford to shop in the area you live in, it's time to move out but I can't. I'm addicted. I still think the pluses outsell the minuses, but let's look at them first.

1 Everyone here is rich and assumes you are rich too, just pretending to be poor. I drive an ancient Volvo and when I was pregnant with my third child, people assumed that I'd trade up. One glamorous neighbour (who flies her own plane) called me to say that if we crammed another child in we would be 'like council house tenants'.

I still emit an involuntary scream when I use the local organic butcher. 'Don't you mean FOURTEEN not FORTY pounds?' I yelp when Mr Lidgate prices up a small leg of lamb. And then I get invited to charity dinners and quizzes, as if I too can and indeed want to spend several dog years getting ready; £600 on a new frock from Matches; and then drop a further bundle (£10,000) at the charity auction on an African eco-spa advertised in the programme as the 'perfect post-safari recovery retreat'.

I know. Who'd have thought you need a fortnight's pampering to recuperate from safari? But welcome to my W11 world! I was once at one of Sting's tables at a Rainforest dinner and a chap casually spent £25,000 on an Anish Kapoor sculpture as he was chatting. Then Annie Lennox sang.

2 There's no privacy. The man who brought Big Brother to Britain - my neighbour Sir Peter Bazalgette, now chairman of the Arts Council - had his lightbulb moment when living on a Notting Hill communal garden. He realised he 'couldn't pick his nose without about a hundred people knowing'.

The children and cats - and other people's husbands, haha, only joking - shade in and out of each others' houses at will. The Birdsong author, Sebastian Faulks, found the lack of privacy on a communal garden so trying and tiring that he moved to a safe house up the road. 3 At social functions there is only rich people's conversation, where the men exchange the names of trending divorce lawyers and the wives reveal names of facialists who specialise in non-invasive procedures like 'resurfacing'. There's much chat about schools but it doesn't take a Chomsky to deduce that it all amounts to 'what I bought next'.

Still, the fact is my neighbours have much to be smug and brag about: even though some are what I call Revels - Rich Enough to Vote Labour - they are secretly thrilled that the mansion tax has gone away and by how the rising tide floated only the yachts. Speaking of yachts, they're so last year. I went out to dinner with a rich friend (rich is 'three digits', ie, worth more than £100 million) and after some prodding from his wife he showed me a picture of his new toy on his iPhone. It looked like a small battleship.

4 Nobody makes jokes, apart from rich people's jokes, which - like the rich - are different, eg, 'What's the difference between a penis and a bonus?' Answer: 'Your wife will blow the bonus.' They also love to say: 'If it f***s, floats, or flies, rent it,' and guffaw with knowing laughter.

5 Many of my neighbours are digging out double basements, creating 'iceberg houses' instead of buying a larger house outside the Royal Borough (a quarter of the 2,000 deep basements in London are in Kensington and Chelsea and there are several dozen planned or under way in the next street, Elgin Crescent, alone).

In a normal universe, the super-rich would have Asbos slapped on them for creating such havoc, but still it goes on. They do it because they can and because adding the subterranean floors adds millions to the value of their mansions. As I write, a conveyor belt is clanking outside my front door, removing London clay to make way for a media room/pool/gym/garage, to render a house into an embassy-style residence with all amenities 'on site'.

6 The women are scarily well turned out compared with me and in far nicer clothes. Yet I cannot be bitchy about Notting Hill mothers. I refuse. They are my friends and I am in awe of their competence, levels of grooming, efficiency and how much they do for others. They may not work for money but they give away their expensively earned skills and time free.

It's far easier slobbing about in tracksuit bottoms over a laptop (me) than having the Notting Hill minimum of four privately educated children, a country house with ponies and a high-rolling husband who is wondering whether he should offer you a 'wife bonus' for extra, mind-blowing sex/getting the children into St Paul's/hosting three dinner parties a quarter, etc (them).

They are exhausted all the time, and it's not because they live only on grains and raw vegan food (one whispered to me: 'I've even forgotten what brown rice tastes like'). It's because they never stop.

Right. On to the plus side then.

1 There are fantastically rich pickings in the charity shops. I'm sure I'm living off Victoria Beckham's cast-offs.

2 Everyone and everything makes good copy. Before I wrote my first novel, Notting Hell, I had no idea how to write one. The longest piece I'd written was on the multifibre arrangement of the textiles industry for a Belgian conferencing organisation. All I knew about writing fiction was to write what you know (Mark Twain) and the advice of Jane Austen that 'three or four families in a village is the very thing to work on'.

I realised that living on a private but 'communal' garden was a creative gift (full disclosure: I live on the very same garden that Hugh Grant, of whom more later, vaulted over in That Movie, saying: 'Oops-a-daisy.')

It's all such rich material: the stuccoed terraces painted in ice cream colours, the children, nannies, super-tutors, Filipinas toiling in the deep basement suites, the shops, the gyms, the organic supermarkets, Portobello Market, all the boutiques devoted to manscaping (there's one called Privet) . . . and the adultery.

3 There's always something going on and the year is measured out with gala occasions such as sports days, Bonfire Nights, residents' summer drinks, bespoke 50th birthday parties where 200 friends are flown to Venice/India/Florence and the champagne-fuelled round of Christmas parties, pantomimes and operas.

4 Because Notting Hill is a village, it leads to meet-cute moments daily: American bankers, media moguls, former supermodels, film directors and playboys all mix it up with each other on Kensington Park Road (known as the 'hi' street because you have to say 'hi' so often).

Oh yes. Once Hugh Grant came to my house. I had no idea he was coming (he was picking up a guest of mine). When the doorbell rang I raced in from the garden and rushed up to open the door, expecting a teenage child. You can imagine my surprise to find William Thacker, of the Travel Bookshop, on my doorstep.

He gestured deprecatingly to a shiny red Ferrari he'd parked outside. 'What do you think?' he asked, ruffling his hair. 'It's not very big,' I said. 'All the girls say that,' Hugh Grant grinned.

You see? Just as in The Archers everyone just happens to bump into each other in the Bull or the village shop. I never have to put people in cars, trains or planes to move things along. (Hugh joined us for supper outside, but refused to eat, saying: 'Barbecue is invariably disgusting.') Things just happen.

My characters, like my friends, are ceaselessly interacting in Portobello Market, at the school gates and at those terrifyingly casual 'Notting Hill kitchen suppers' you may have read about where children scamper about in striped flannel pyjamas and at least two members of the cabinet are necking Lynch-Bages out of tooth mugs.

All my main characters - like Notting Hill's real housewives and trophy husbands - can bump into each other in the back gardens and stab each other in the front all the time. As Sartre almost said, Notting Hell is other people. Which is absolute heaven for an author.

More books on Money

More books on Fame and Beauty

Books by Title

Books by Author

Books by Topic

Bits of Books To Impress