Hold my hand and let’s swing westwards. Over, past the Palace of Westminster and down towards where the river does a cheeky little loop. Stop there. Yes, just by Peter Jones. For this is Sloane Square, the gateway to Chelsea, London’s most stalwart and distinguished rich borough. Here we find much beauty – some exceedingly pretty leaded windows in tall thin houses overlooking the Thames at Cheyne Walk, the pale, white lampposts overlooking the Thames that flush beautiful shapes over the river, and swathes of rich Russians in vast cars honking their horns and schlepping down the Kings Road with sturdy looking girlfriends who have shoulders like Ukraine shotputters.
Here the chavtastic characteristics of this most exclusive borough were so vulgar that someone turned it into a TV programme. One can only imagine what James Whistler would say. Well, he wouldn’t say anything, obviously, he’d just paint it. But there was no chavvy behaviour in Chelsea in the 1870s, which is why you will never see a Whistler painting that depicts a yellow sports car trying to reverse park outside Peter Jones. Thomas Carlyle, George Meredith, Algernon Swinburne and Jonathan Swift are just some of the high profile artists and writers who found Chelsea the ideal neighbourhood in the mid-late 19th Century, for thinking and writing. Even then you needed quite a lot of the green stuff to live there. There are some who see the decline of the inventiveness and style of areas in London that are super-rich sub-villages as a direct result of gentrification. Well, you can’t throw that accusation at Chelsea. It’s been gentrified since about 1650. Although it is a bastion of upper middle class Englishness I wonder what it has, in the last 15 years, lost. The same could be said of the bit in Notting Hill that elbows against Holland Park Avenue, as detailed in last night’s “The Story of Our Streets”, which focused on the bankers-hellhole-financial-ghetto blank blandness that is present-day Portland Road, W11.
Unsurprisingly, the programme showed Portland Road to be a dissolute riot of primal gluttony. Chunks of West London have deteriorated into virtual communities where the post office becomes a shop selling vintage vases and the grocery shop becomes a shop that contains something no one understands but where every item costs £100,000. The anaemia of these communities is inevitable and faintly depressing. This has been happening in Chelsea for a longer, more sustained period. I am not one of those people who romance the torrid slums of yesteryear by excusing it on the basis that writers, artists and poets were able to live there. A slum is a slum, and therefore a disgrace. The tendency to romanticise poverty is a nasty, unpleasant middle class habit. Whilst the blandness of these heavily antiseptic, lonely and increasingly quiet rows of bankers villas do change an area, it is important to note that whilst the artists and writers cannot afford to live there anymore, they do, in fact still live there. What are the artists and writers like who still live in SW3 and W11?
Perhaps if there are any, they’re like Carlos. Carlos lives in Mayfair. He spends most of his days in Avery Row, and creates and exhibits photography in galleries all over London (four this summer, two in his native Mayfair). He is a fixture in the area. Like the well-heeled residents of Chelsea, he is also indicative of a long-standing London residential tradition : Carlos has no home and lives on the streets outside the office where I type this, and retails the Big Issue whilst condusting vast acrobatic hand gestures and nimble body contortions. He can ripple a copy of The Big Issue up his back without using his hands. He pirouettes into the pathway of hassled office workers on their way back from Pret A Manger. He smiles and jumps about trying to make people laugh. He is an excellent travelling, self-taught photographer who uses London, amongst other cities, as his muse. You can view his work here (www.carlosphotography.com) . I can only imagine that Chelsea too must have its wave of Carlos’s, as will everywhere. More and more homeless nomads are seen on London’s streets. When we speak of residents of an area, we chose to make invisible those who do live in the area but who do not have a house. This is an error. They live in an area, just as anybody else.
Yesterday afternoon I crossed the junction of Holland Park Avenue and Portland Road on my way to an appointment. This end of Portland Road is ostentatiously referred to as the “rich end”. Yet, there they were. The selection of hardy perennials, with no teeth, ranting, drinking, engaging with various levels of psychosis, with clothes unchanged for the best part of ten years. The residents, who live in the same streets, who are not referred to in any sense during the BBC’s “The Story of Our Streets” but who are residents, nonetheless. It doesn’t matter how much money you have ; you cannot possibly afford to avoid them. No one from the BBC crew seemed to interview them, which was a mistake : sometimes the most observing and consistent eyes that a neighbourhood can provide are those who stand on the streets all day watching, looking and noticing. The wives of bankers getting pedicured in the Cowshed speak very much, but know astonishingly little, and one of them was so alarmingly dim I wondered whether she was all “there”.
Chelsea still has a sublime side to it. The Albert Bridge is London’s most beautiful bridge. The all-encompassing dark blue light on an evening in Cheyne Walk bewitches and lulls the onlooker into a placid sense of charm. Westbourne Grove will never be anything but a lovely fun place to lunch and shop, full of wonderful architecture and boho bourgeois eateries. But whilst the neighbouring areas of Kensington and Holland Park have retained their luminescent style and sedate West London manner, Notting Hill has begun to go the way of Chelsea. Chelsea has been plucked out of itself and re-created, into Made in Chelsea, an ignoble, tarnished, sheep dip of a programme which shows SW3 as nothing more than a riot of consumer vulgarity and narcissism, where self-aware television producers create completely un-self-aware characters in order for the masses to have a jolly good laugh when – frankly – they ought to be doing something sensible and more life affirming – like reading a book, or running and bath and then slowly drowning themselves. Might it turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy? Surely the evidence suggests that Chelsea couldn’t be more chavvy if it tried, with its plethora of enormous white cars like fridges on wheels, harnessed by stroppy looking Russians and their miserable botoxed girlfriends, ropily bombing up to Peter Jones for more Smeg items and a new flat screen telly. When did Chelsea lose it’s mojo?
Holland Park is still delightful. The roads that run off to the west of Holland Park towards Notting Hill, pastJulie’s, are some of the prettiest in London. The roads that run out east back towards Kensington sigh and sink into nameless, soundless money. They maintain their Edwardian grandeur; and the ornate carvings of red brick mansion blocks point up to the skyline with something like grace. But Chelsea seems to be riding itself into a charmless and sticky grave. It is uptight and overly pruned. One wonders if Thomas Carlyle would find the headspace to think anything at all if he tried to write in Chelsea today. What would Whistler choose to paint? Streets with signs of no human activity, where no one is in from 5am to 8pm and where the paranoid bankers blinds are fully drawn? There’s only so much a pastel painted, former workman’s cottage can ever be worth, surely? As the houses of West London vault and soar up beyond the £10million mark, what exactly is being bought into? Bah – enough futility. It isn’t interesting. What is interesting is that innovation, interest and artistry can never be truly dampened. It’s down to the irrepressibly artistic fervour of the Carlos’s to maintain the balance. It’s humbling to realise that in a community filled to the brim with excessively rich people those who give the most to fellow human beings in an aesthetic sense are those who have so little in the first place.
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