In Notting Dale
In 1893, the London Daily News published an article about Notting Dale, an area in north Kensington also known as the Potteries for its brick-making kilns and clay pits. ‘A West End Avernus’ was the headline: poor, overcrowded, with shocking housing – if there was an entrance to the Underworld, then this, the article said, was it.
A grotesque report inspired by the piece a couple of years later blamed the bad condition of the area on the ‘vicious proclivities of the people themselves’. They were, the report said, ‘loafers, cab-runners, beggars, tramps, thieves and prostitutes’. One of the clay pits made by the 19th-century brick makers was so large that it was called the ‘Ocean’: it was filled with slime. The houses nearby were said to be of ‘a wretched class, many being mere hovels in a ruinous condition, filthy in the extreme, and containing vast accumulations of garbage and offal’. The wells were contaminated. The risk of cholera was high.
In 1845, average life expectancy in the area was 11 years and 7 months; the London average was 37. Ninety years later, the area remained overcrowded. According to the Survey of London (1973) the ‘central situation of the borough’ made it ‘attractive for different reasons for both rich and poor, and a factor likely always to aggravate the problem of overcrowding there.’ The narrator of The Swimming Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst describes looking through the windows of Notting Hill on his walks. The book was set in the early 1980s. The lights were on, the shutters and curtains left open. Now you can walk around Notting Hill at dusk and realise so many of these handsome houses are empty, their owners elsewhere, in other homes. All the same, Notting Hill is still one of the most densely occupied areas in Britain.
Many of the streets were razed during and after the Second World War. The ward of Notting Dale is made up of mostly post-1970s buildings, and most of them are run by Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation on behalf of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It is the poorest ward in the borough (to the north is the ward where David Cameron lives, St Helen’s; Boris Johnson grew up in Norland). A new leisure centre was opened recently in Notting Dale, as was an academy school. I went for a walk through the area one morning a few weeks ago; a friend said the new pool was huge and wonderful, and I should go and look.
Notting Dale was one of the wards that voted Labour in last week’s general election, and which turned a constituency that had been almost universally believed to be impregnably Conservative into one of the most astonishing Labour victories of 8 June. Kensington is one of the wealthiest areas in Britain, with large American, Arabic, French and Italian populations. ‘Who We Are’ is the title of the council’s sunny ‘Headline Data’ of the borough’s demographics, and its cosmopolitan character. There is nothing so diverse about being badly off or poor, but details about the less well-to-do in Kensington isn’t something the council has sought to point out.
And then this morning there was the fire in Notting Dale; what had once been said to be the entrance to the Underworld became Avernus all over again. Grenfell Tower was a towering inferno. I cycled there from Ladbroke Grove soon after 6 a.m. I’d been woken by the helicopters. I looked on at the charred exterior with flames flaring out of the higher windows, beyond the reach of the fire brigade’s hoses. I couldn’t fail to be reminded of the World Trade Center towers I’d seen alight from a mile away on the morning of 11 September 2001.
The streets and the lawns north of the tower were covered with large and small cinders that had fallen to the ground; they were full of people, many evacuated from nearby buildings. I ran into a friend, who had just taken clothes to a community centre under the Westway; her lawn was covered in pieces of soot when we went back to her flat. Parents were taking children to school. The drone of the helicopters above is now mingled with the drilling of building work. From a mile away I can still see a plume of smoke.
The Grenfell Action Group has long been complaining about the fire regulations, and the lack of compliance with them, at the tower block, despite its recent refurbishment. Much attention will soon be aimed at the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation; it has just announced its plans for the refurbishment of one of Notting Hill’s most well known landmarks, the Trellick Tower. Looking at the flames, I heard a young man who lived near the tower say how he’d been evacuated; he had heard that the fire broke out after a fridge had exploded. As he spoke, more black cinders fell from a cloudless sky. The fire brigade say the tower is unlikely to collapse, and so the new school and the swimming pool will survive. Six people have been confirmed dead; the toll is likely to rise.