34 Tite Street might not sound like the sort of address your brain registers immediately as worth remembering for any particular reason. But if I were to add the following quote: “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”, then, you might be in a better position to have a go at guessing who I am writing about.
Or perhaps not. After all, Oscar Wilde, the author of the quote above, was such a prolific writer that it would be hard for anyone to keep up with all his witticisms and putdowns. On cynicism, though, he nailed it. This was not just a throwaway phrase (I do not think he ever said anything that was unintentional or accidental) but an acute observation of the society in which Wilde lived.
Wilde was on my mind as I cycled on Battersea Bridge Road towards Beaufort Street en route to Portobello Road from Brixton Market. It was only a fleeting thought, however, caused by the familiar sight of the sun-drenched Embankment on my right. I had been on this very road a few days before as part of my three-stadium bike-tour. Seeing the long straight thoroughfare again reminded me of Cavafy’s poem The Place. That’s when Wilde made his unplanned cameo. CP Cavafy, one of the most important Greek poets of the 20th century had been heavily influenced by William Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde.
It was not just the combination of cycling near SW3, where Wilde’s former residence, 34 Tite Street was, and the Irish poet’s influence on the Greek one that reminded me of The Place. It was also some of the lines from the poem which suited the flat-looking and almost noise-free streets I was biking along. Drayton Gardens, Gloucester Road and Princes Diana Memorial Playground lent themselves to the nostalgia-coloured verses: “You shall not find new places; other seas/you shall not find. The place shall follow you/And you shall walk the same familiar streets/and you shall age in the same neighbourhood/and whiten in these same houses.” I kept thinking of the lives lived behind the high-ceilinged, oak-floor terraced houses that flanked me along the way. It always happens when I am out and about in London, whether on foot or bicycle. I often wonder: who lives behind that closed door? What are their lives like? What are their dreams and hopes?
I had asked myself the same question when I was in the triangle formed by Brixton Road, Coldharbour Lane and Atlantic Road and I asked myself the same question as my two-wheeler touched down on Portobello Road.
It was a Saturday which could only mean crowds. Having been so far on a Zen-like trip from Brixton to Holland Park, facing the full force of a market day in west London all of a sudden jolted me out of my reverie. Then again, this was Portobello Market, a place where since the 1940s “rag and bone” men and antiques dealers have become the raison d’être of this fashionable part of Notting Hill (yes, that Notting Hill, Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant’s Notting Hill). Another reason why this part of London is so renowned is its vintage clothes shops on Pembridge Road.
The best way to enjoy the market for me was to get off my bike and saddle-push it all the way from the start of Portobello Road down to the A40 (Westway). It was difficult to walk, especially once I went past Westbourne Grove. The further into the market I ventured, the denser the crowd, the more varied the stalls and the higher the volume of people’s voices. As I neared Westbourne Park Road music made an appearance in the form of reggae. It is worth noting that the worldwide famous Notting Hill Carnival takes place in this area every year at the end of August. The largest street festival in Europe, this is a celebration of Afro-Caribbean traditions and cultures that has been going on for more than fifty years. As I came out at the other end of Portobello Road, looking for Ladbroke Grove and a way to get on to the canal path, Camden-bound, I looked back and could not help thinking about what must have motivated Notting Hill’s screen-writer Richard Curtis to “whiten up” not only the cast, but also the neighbourhood in the movie. There they all were, the vendors, the costumers, the tourists, the locals, all mixed, todos mezclados, different but mixed. I got back on my bike and cycled off.