Could you ever give up the trappings of modern life and live in a cabin in the woods? To be completely honest, I don’t think I could (well, not for long) - but there are certainly times when the idea of it seems very appealing. I’d miss my home comforts and I’m not sure I’d cope too well with the more hostile aspects of the British climate. But I could probably manage it in the long bright days and comfortable nights of a balmy Summer, my entertainment provided by drawing, wildlife watching and daily field studies of flora and fauna, isolated from an overcrowded, angry world and liberated from the oppressive worries of contemporary existence.
Anyway, what started me along this train of thought was the latest episode of ‘The Secret History Of Our Streets’ , the BBC2 series I wrote about in a previous post - and again I found it moving and fascinating. As with all the previous programmes, the characters chosen to talk about their experiences of each street were from a variety of backgrounds but they all shared a great ability to engage with the viewer, and to tell their stories with natural flair. Wednesday’s ‘Secret History…’ focused on Portland Street, Notting Hill. While spotlighting different locations, the same themes have recurred throughout every programme so far: the concept of slum clearance, the awful treatment of poorer tenants, the changing characters and/or loss of existing communities, a national obsession with property ownership, and the class divide. The story of Portland Street encompasses all these things particularly strongly, with its multi-million pound Georgian houses owned by bankers at one end, and its tired-looking council flats and ASBO reputation at the other. Yet again I found a lot of things about it jaw-dropping, tear-jerking, uplifting and appalling in fairly equal measure.
Perhaps the most heart-warming and surprising revelation came at the very end, and was not about Portland Street itself, but about one of its former residents, Henry Mayhew. I’d love to find out more about him. From the programme I learned that he was from an extremely wealthy family, he’d been the owner of one of those multi-million pound houses, and he’d been in finance himself. However, the more he said, the more my preconceptions of him were eroded. He spoke with poignancy about the lifelessness of the “posh end” of the street, the grey-faced men with sloping shoulders who lived in the obscenely priced properties, but spent no real time there. He called it a "dormitory town for the money factory". His acknowledgement of the class divisions and the different types of people who lived at opposite ends came across as reluctantly acceptant and tinged with a shrugging sadness. He spoke of the way that ordinary taxpayers’ money went into bankers' houses, not the small businesses we thought (?) our financial institutions were investing in (no surprise there, then…) and that many new owners in Notting Hill were wealthy Europeans who simply chose London because it was a tax haven. His attitude was not so different from that of John, another interviewee, who was by contrast a working class man born in an old house on Portland Street when it was a slum, and had been moved into the council flats. John bemoaned the fact that the area had changed beyond recognition, “Where d’you go to get a paper or a packet of fags?” he asked, “You can’t even get a pint of milk.” The old dairy located on the street in his youth is now an exclusive art dealership. Their experiences were different but Henry and John were both disillusioned. John now lives in a mobile home in Cornwall, and seems very happy to be there. And Henry? Well, Henry moved out of Portland Street too. In the final scenes of the programme he was chopping wood and behind him was one of those building site cabins. With a little bit of work to the inside, it was going to be his new home. A cabin in the woods. We last saw Henry outside in the clearing, pouring water from a bucket to wash his naked body. He’s happier now. Call me daft if you like, but my eyes pricked.