I didn't want to go, but I kind of had to. All this week I've been putting off going past or near my old flat, even taking a circuitous route when I went to Portobello Market so I wouldn't even walk on any of the streets that ultimately led there.
It's been a long-standing tradition/habit/compulsion with me that when I visit a town where I used to live, I walk past not just any houses I lived in, but houses or shops or hangouts where anything of significance happened to me. But for whatever reason, I didn't want to do that during this week in London. Maybe it's too soon, maybe I didn't want to be turned into a pillar of salt, maybe I just wanted to experience London in a different way than I did during all the years I lived here.
But as it happened, it was only my old flat that I ended up avoiding. The rest of the time I trod familiar paths, going to the same gym, the same restaurants and cafes, the same backstreets of Soho, and hanging out with most of the same people. And finally, today, came the day when I could no longer avoid Westbourne Park and the yellow brick semi-brutalist modern block of council flats that I first saw in 1975 when it was practically brand new (and, under the astute management of the council, already beginning to fall to bits), lived in on a part-time basis from the 70s through the mid-90s, and lived in full time (well, apart from my peripatetic globetrottings) since I left Lookout Records in 1997.
I was hoping the new owner would bring me the mail that's accumulated there these past few months, but he lives way out of the way in South London and wasn't up for making a special trip, so it was down to me. I boarded the dodgy old Hammersmith and City Line - also for the first time during this trip - and exited at what used to be my station, only to find that the tenant at the flat hadn't made it home in time after all, and that I would have to kill an hour or two waiting for her.
I spent the first half hour outside the door, making phone calls and musing over just how strange it was that I no longer had a key to the comforts of home on the other side, and what's more, that I had now become one of those mysterious, vaguely threatening characters who sometimes hung around the corridors for no apparent purpose. Several people walked past looking dubiously at me, and a foul little fat girl from the other end of the building started riding her bike up and down the hallway while her mother looked on obliviously.
When I lived there I was forever telling kids off for riding bikes and skateboards in the halls; not only did it destroy the floors, but it made a lot of racket, occasionally knocked over old ladies, and was just plain annoying in that there was acres of pavement right out front for any normal kid to ride on. Plus I was a member of the tenants management committee, and it was kind of my job to remonstrate with people when they ignored the rules and/or damaged the building.
Out of habit I very nearly spoke to the brat, then spent ten minutes debating whether I should, each time getting more incensed as she smugly rode past me, to the point where I was afraid I might deliver a swift kick to her hind end if she came close enough again. I decided - rationally enough, I suppose - that it was no longer my business, and thought it best to get out of the building before irrationality intruded on the scene once more.
I walked down to Portobello Road and strolled slowly from one end to the other of the main drag - the part you'll have seen Hugh Grant striding back and forth over if you happened to watch the film Notting Hill - and grew exceedingly depressed. A little angry, too, though why I should take personally the failings of a neighborhood I no longer live in, I have no idea.
It was just after 8 pm and the place was closed up tight as a drum. Apart from a few pubs and restaurants, mostly colonized by the just-off-work suit-and-tie brigades, the street was deserted. If you're not sure why this should be remarkable, consider New York's Greenwich Village, a rough counterpart to Notting Hill in that both are one-time bohemian enclaves now primarily owned and occupied by the extraordinarily rich and privileged. Would you see all the shops in the Village closed and the streets empty at 8 am? Or 4 am, for that matter? Perhaps if a hurricane or World War III were on its way, but not bloody likely otherwise.
So just what is London's/Notting Hill's problem? I have no idea, but I felt immensely glad that I no longer live there, and made a firm resolution that if I should ever move back to London, it won't be anywhere near W11. Walking back toward my old flat, I saw three teenagers apparently trying to break into the front window of one of the million-pound flats in full view of several passersby and what was more or less full daylight (it doesn't get dark till around 10 pm this time of year). No one seemed to care, so I didn't either.
The tenant at what used to be my flat finally got home and invited me in, despite my initial intention to simply collect my mail and get out of there. I recognized the carpeting I'd installed downstairs and the one or two pieces of furniture I'd left behind, but that was about it: a new paint job, new flooring, furniture, artwork made the place look positively elegant, something I never achieved in all my years there.
She was a fabulously beautiful and incredibly friendly Spanish violinist; we ended up talking for almost an hour, and agreeing that it was ridiculous that the neighborhood should close down even before darkness fell. In Spain, as in New York, street life barely gets started until long after dark, and in fact, she'd finally made up her mind to move away to Berlin, where she could enjoy twice the action at half the price.
That made me sad; the idea of my not living in the flat any longer was made easier by the thought of someone so elegant having taken my place. But I understood her motives and wished her well. She gave me the loveliest hug goodbye despite never having met or seen me before, and I walked down the hall, out the door, and into the Tube station without ever looking back again.