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October 04, 2006

An everyday tale of rich folk: Notting Hell - Rachel Johnson

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Notting Hell
by Rachel Johnson
London: Penguin Fig Tree, 2006
Hardback, 12.99

Despite its title this entertaining novel is largely positive towards the west London district which has recently caused excitement in political circles for its local residents capturing the Conservative Party. The content is more social comment than heavy politics but there is the odd passage which give us a hint of how the minds work of the all conquering Notting Hill set. (Some of whose members like Michael Gove and Rachel's brother Boris no longer actually live in the area.)

What of the attitude towards America's global hegemony?

People like Ralph, who've been around the neighbourhood for decades and remember Notting Hill in the days of race riots and Rachman and beatniks and Anita Pallenberg, don't appreciate the positive impact on the service economy of Americans as much as desperate housewives and domestic divas do.
Or so writes "Mimi". (The novel is compartmentalised with "Mimi" and "Clare" taking it in turns to be the narrator in alternating chapters.)

Secretly, we find the upscaling of the raffish neighbourhood very convenient. Places stay open longer, and restaurants deliver, and sluggish shop keepers come face to face with the impatient demands of New Yorkers asking for things to happen "like, yesterday," and that sort of thing. I mean, Felicitous, where I pick up a daily coffee, is open from school-run time till something like 11 at night so busy bankers can pick-up some sake-marinated salmon with griddled asparagus on their way home. Which is nice, you must admit.
So no fears that a Cameron premiership will mean an end to the Special Relationship.

The novel is set in a square with a communal garden - a condition which fosters a close but exclusive community. It includes a character called Mimi, who by spooky coincidence writes freelance feature articles for the Daily Telegraph just like Rachel herself. Here is Mimi receiving a commission to write about The Rules of Adultery.

Talk to your rich friends. They're all at it. Talk to serial adulterers. Comb the cuts, so we can have a sidebar with the rules according to men and the rules according to women, and run a rogue's gallery of notorious adulterers.
Mimi asks for examples. The reply comes:
Well there are hundreds aren't there? You know, like, um that Kimberly woman.
This is an edgy reference to the publisher of The Spectator Kimberly Quinn. Another example that Rachel might have thought of was the magazine's former editor, Boris - her brother.

Soon enough Mimi finds out all too much about adultery. She has a moral dilemma when she meet Si, an American billionaire, who has moved into the garden square.

He sounds pretty keen:

If only I could get any of you, what are you called? - yummy mummies - to notice me? I'm having entry problems into the neighbourhood. Who's my in around here? Who do I need to know? Is it you?
So does she:
I notice he occasionally looks down to my best feature which I have boosted with a cleavage enhancing bra from Agent Provocateur in Westbourne Grove...
Mimi adds that:
With another man I might find this sleazy. With him, I don't. I've never felt this urge to remain in a man's presence before. It's as if some pheromonic forcefield I've never fully felt is yanking me towards him.
Any journalist reading this novel will have identified with one
passage when Mimi is at a drinks party.
"You've got to watch what you say in front of Mimi, ha ha, she's a journalist."

It is an iron rule that only those who are most unlikely to say or do anything remotely noteworthy or vaguely interesting make this remark.

This novel has everything. There is attention to detail - in Notting Hill people pronounce Feng Shui, the correct but pretentious way,
"Fung Schwee". There are plugs with the real names of shops like Clarke's which I hope will get Rachel a discount on her grocery bill.
Less pleased will be Lidgate, the famous butchers in Holland Park Avenue criticised for being too expensive.

Some of the exuberant vocabulary we enjoy in this novel offers a reminder of brother Boris. But this is very much a modern novel. There is the divide over money ("the haves and the have yachts"). Mimi's husband Ralph even wants to sell up and move out, while on the moral issue of having lots of money there is a relaxed attitude towards it.

Although there is no dreary guilt about being rich there is some self mockery about the more absurd aspects. (A daily routine involves the husband being driven to the City although the tube would be much quicker. The wife gets a 50 ticket after double parking outside Starbucks on her way back from her Pilates class. She stuffs it in the glove compartment with all the others while she sips her "daily cup of soya half-caffe latte.") For Mimi and the rest this is just how life is - not a matter for guilt nor a matter for aggressive triumphalism.
But there is, of course, a good dose of distinctively female snobbery. One character is nicknamed Doors to Manual because she reminds the cliquey characters of a Virgin Airlines stewardess.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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