By Lindsey Harrad
“This is one of the most rural and pleasant walks in the summer in the vicinity of London,” wrote one Thomas Faulkner in the 1830s. “Nothing could be heard in the tranquil silence but the notes of the lark, the linnet and the nightingale.” Faulkner is referring to Portobello Lane in London’s Notting Hill, but only 30 years later the foundations of what would eventually become the world-famous Portobello Market were already becoming established.
Today, a stroll down the same street – or a slow shuffle through the crowds on Saturday morning – would be accompanied by the calls of traders, the chatter of thousands of locals and tourists in every language, the constant background hum of traffic and the collective clatter of countless coffee shops. In her book, Portobello Voices W.11, journalist and documentary maker Blanche Girouard sets out to capture what makes this market tick, meeting the extraordinary characters behind the stalls, many of whom have been trading here for decades, to discover how to spot a fake, store a fur and choose a good melon.
Girouard intervenes very little into the narrative, other than an introduction and postscript. An oral historian, she allows the antique dealers, collectors (including one fascinating Oxford alumnus), costermongers, haberdashers, millinery dealers, local residents and even a refuse collector to speak in their own words, offering a colourful and often poignant insight into the history of the market, the hardships of the traders, and the strong community spirit of the people who work here. As vintage fashion dealer Jo says, “We are like a sort of fellowship really. There’s something about people who do this sort of thing: they’re not conventional – they’re just outside society.”
It’s a precarious life in more ways than one, as Portobello Market’s future is uncertain. The market may now be one of the top ten tourist attractions in London, but soaring popularity has brought with it a proliferation of mass produced goods, fake designer gear and cheap souvenirs, so it takes a savvy shopper to spot the real gems still to be found on the stalls of the genuine traders. It’s the last street antique market left in London, but the gentrification of the fashionable Notting Hill area has attracted developers, who are turfing long-established antique traders out of the arcades. Yet, as life-long dealer Marion says, “Without the street market, this street is not worth a cup of cold water. Okay? Because it is the ugliest street in England leading to two of the poorest wards in Europe.”
Where else but Portobello can people living on the fringes of society rub shoulders with celebrities browsing for vintage gladrags on any given Saturday morning? But the innate coolness of Portobello may also be its downfall. Many locals fear the local authority wants to sanitise the market and package it as an attraction. “They want it to have sort of old English humbug shop, cheeky chappy cockneys selling scarves and ties and a preferred route – the yellow brick road – for walking right from Notting Hill Gate. With signposts and buskers,” remarks antique dealer Barry.
Portobello Voices W.11 is not merely a riveting account of market life by the characters who keep this national institution alive, illustrated with some splendid old photographs — it’s a sincere plea to anyone who loves Portobello to help ensure its future survival.
Image by adambowie under Creative Commons license.