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Views of Britain


Notting Hill

This short story by Antoinette Moses explores some ideas about contemporary Britain, and in particular cultural stereotypes and misconceptions. Teachers may think of a number of ways to use this in the classroom.

‘My turn,’ said James. ‘Next game: you’ve got a time capsule and you want to put one thing in it which represents England. What do you choose?’

His friends groaned. James always chose games that he knew he would win. This one was no exception. He had obviously been thinking about it for some time and had a winning reply ready. But everyone liked James, you couldn’t not like James, he was so open, so funny, and so kind. So, as usual, they went along with him and played his game, even though they expected him to win.

‘A Number Seven Manchester United shirt,’ said Ben. Ben was a passionate supporter of Manchester United. Number Seven was the shirt worn by David Beckham, who was Ben’s personal hero.

‘That just represents England now,’ argued Barbara. ‘How about a cup of tea?’ she suggested.

‘No,’ said James. ‘No one drinks tea any more. Everyone drinks cappuccino.’

That’s because you’re a Londoner, James,’ said Shanika. ‘Back home in Swansea, everyone still drinks tea. You think that everyone in England is like you.’

‘OK,’ said James, reasonably. ‘So what would you choose?’

Shanika thought for a moment. ‘A frozen packet of chicken tikka masala.’

Click to enlarge

‘Brilliant!’ said Ben. ‘You’ve got it all. The English create a dish that they think is Indian, but which the Indians don’t eat and is suitably bland for English tastes and then, because they hate cooking, they buy it frozen, ready to heat in the microwave.’

‘I’ve read that it’s the most popular dish in the country,’ said Barbara.

‘What about pizza?’ asked Ben.

‘Perhaps it’s the most popular dish after pizza,’ agreed Barbara. ‘It was an old article.’

‘Well, James,’ said Ben. ‘You’ve heard all our choices. What would you put in your time capsule?’

‘Actually, my choice was surprisingly similar to Shanika's,' said James. ‘It was a chicken tikka sandwich bought at an all-night garage.’

‘Very clever,’ laughed Shanika.

‘I think it’s a tie for first place between Shanika and James,’ said Barbara.

Barbara looked around the group, smiling to herself. There she was in a real London pub with a group of Londoners, drinking beer and playing games. It was just as she’d always dreamed it must be. Except that, of course, it was quite different.

The pub, the Mr Micawber, was part of a national chain of themed pubs, all named after characters in Dickens’ novels. It had been designed to look old, when it fact it was new, and her friends were not at all like the people she had expected to find in England.

Before she arrived, Barbara had thought that she knew everything about England. She knew exactly what it was going to be like. She had watched every film about England that her local video store had managed to get hold of. The owner was a friend of her father's and had let her see them for free in return for some English lessons for his daughter. So she had seen Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sliding Doors and The Remains of the Day, though she knew that the last was a bit old fashioned. She’d watched the film Notting Hill seven times; she couldn’t wait to meet Hugh Grant or some other Englishman who looked just like him.

She’d also seen The Full Monty, which showed that there were villages a bit like those at home, where people didn’t have much to eat and the old industries were closing. But The Full Monty was set in Sheffield and her English teacher had told her that Sheffield was in the North of England. There was a north-south divide, he told her.

Barbara wondered what the north-south divide looked like. Perhaps it was a bit like the Grand Canyon it America, but smaller. She had seen the Grand Canyon in lots of films. Barbara looked at a map of England but couldn’t see any divide, so she guessed that there were lots of bridges where the roads were.

She was the first person in her village to go to England and her parents were very proud of the scholarship she had won which enabled her to study at University of Westminster in London. Her college was right in the middle of London. She had a map of London, which she’d stuck on her bedroom wall. She imagined walking down the streets and alongside the River Thames. Barbara knew all about the River Thames. She knew that there were 29 bridges over the River Thames in London and you walked across them in the rain and had romantic meetings. Just like the girl in Sliding Doors.

She knew about the Underground, too, and she knew that Londoners called it the Tube. She knew that the map of the Underground was a marvellous piece of design because her art teacher had told her that. And she knew the names of the Underground stations because she had the Underground map on the wall of her room, too. Month after month, while she waited to find out whether her application to London was accepted, she would read the names of the Underground stations. They sounded so mysterious and exciting, she thought.

At Blackfriars there would be an old monastery with hooded monks, at Royal Oak, a large oak tree, and at Marble Arch a shining archway made of white marble. Barbara wasn’t quite sure what to expect at the station called Angel.

After her place and her grant were finalised, Barbara’s English teacher had helped her find accommodation through the University website and had lent her the A-Z of London, which she said was the Londoners’ bible. You couldn’t survive in London without it, she told her.

This book astonished Barbara – it was so big! There were a hundred and fifty pages of maps and each page covered over a kilometre. She had no idea that London was so big. She began to feel that she would be completely lost there.

‘Don’t think of it as one place,’ said her teacher. ‘It’s really just a huge conglomeration of villages. Even Londoners don’t know all of London. They usually just know the district they live in and the one where they work. And maybe one or two others where they go shopping and go out in the evenings.’

‘Which village am I staying in?’ asked Barbara.

‘Notting Hill,’ said her teacher.

Barbara couldn’t believe it. Notting Hill! ‘The family I’m staying with live in Notting Hill?’ she asked incredulously. Images of Hugh Grant filled her head.

‘Yes,’ said her teacher. ‘Look, here it is on the map. Clarendon Road. Though your nearest tube station will be Holland Park, which is ideal for you, as you can get the Central Line all the way to Oxford Circus and walk up to your college.’

Barbara thought about the film Notting Hill. It was true that in the film, the people in Notting Hill all knew each other, just like in a village. She thought that she wouldn’t feel so lonely in a friendly place like that.

‘What’s it like, Notting Hill?’ asked Barbara. ‘Have you ever been there?’

‘It’s a very lively part of London,’ said her teacher. ‘Notting Hill is a typical London village. It used to be pretty awful, lots of slums but now it’s completely changed. It’s very fashionable. It’s where lots of famous people live. Yes, I’ve been there, but a long time ago, when the people living there were mostly writers and artists. Some student friends of mine had a flat there. And it’s got the Notting Hill Carnival, which is the biggest street carnival in England.’

Looking back at that conversation some months after she arrived in England, Barbara realised that her teacher had used a kind of code. Notting Hill, she immediately discovered, was a centre of Afro-Caribbean culture. Her English teacher had not wanted to say that the area was mostly black, so she had said that it was ‘lively.’

It had been a shock arriving in Notting Hill and finding that apart from her family – who had bought their house thirty years ago, when they were both students – most of the other people in the street were black. In the films she’d seen about England there were black people, but there was always just one black person in a group of white English people. She’d never imagined that there would be so many black people in London. There were no black people in her village back home and she wasn’t sure how to talk to them. She didn’t know if they spoke English.

The family where she was staying, the Russells, were very nice and introduced her to some of the neighbours. And Barbara found out that they were English whose parents were West Indian. In fact, she discovered, they spoke more clearly than lots of the white people she met. And they were very friendly.

She was still a little afraid of the tall black boys with their knitted hats and strange baggy clothes. Until the day she met Ben. She’d been having coffee with Ewa, who was an au pair in one of the expensive houses near Holland Park. She’d learned that Clarendon Road changed character as it went towards Ladbroke Grove. The road near Holland Park was full of very large expensive houses with very rich people, but the houses gradually got smaller and closer together, but by then you were almost at the huge overhead motorway, called the Westway which cut right across lots of the Ladbroke Grove streets. And this was an area where she was told not to go by herself at night.

The family Ewa worked for had a house in the rich part of Clarendon Road. For them the other end didn’t exist. Ewa told Barbara that they didn’t like foreigners very much, but didn’t have time to look after their children as they both worked in the City. Ewa was just earning a small amount of money while she learned English. Then she was going home.

She and Barbara used to meet for coffee at a café near the Portobello Market. They both loved the antique market and spent hours looking at all old pieces of furniture on the stalls. Barbara liked the clothes stalls best, but found the prices surprisingly high.

It was after she had left the café and was walking back home one evening that the event took place, which as she later said, completely changed her life. It was about six, but already getting dark. She was walking down Elgin Crescent wondering if any famous people lived in the big houses when she realised that two tall black youths were running after her. She began to run herself, her heart pounding.

‘Hey, stop!’ they called after her.

Barbara ran on, but they were much faster that Barbara and wore trainers, while Barbara was wearing boots with small heels.

‘Why are you running?’ the tallest boy said to her as he ran round in front of her.

Barbara was too scared to speak.

‘Do you speak English?’ the other boy asked.

Barbara nodded.

‘You left your scarf behind in the café,' the tall boy said. ‘I thought that you wouldn’t want to lose it. It’s really nice.’

‘Oh, ‘said Barbara. ‘Oh, thank you… I’m sorry, I thought…’

‘Don’t worry,’ said the tall boy, understanding what she was trying to say. ‘We’re used to it. Where are you from? You’re not English are you? Are you a student? Where did you get this scarf? It’s really cool.’

Barbara laughed.

‘My name’s Ben,’ said Ben. ‘And this is Steve. What’s your name? Where did you say you were from?

‘You haven’t given her a chance to speak,’ said Steve. ‘Don’t take any notice of Ben, he’s always like this.’

This was how Barbara met Ben and his friends and joined the group of students who met up most evenings to go for a drink or something to eat or to see a film.

It was Ben who taught Barbara how the English spoke in codes. Barbara was learning about codes in her studies, and after Ben pointed it out, she found that the English talked in code a great deal of the time.

When she first arrived she had been horrified to realise that despite her good marks in English at school, she didn’t understand a word anyone said. It was a fog of sound and only the family where she stayed, who were used to foreign students and spoke deliberately slowly, made any kind of sense.

Gradually she learned to make sense of it all. When she got on a bus and the conductor said: ‘Fezplizthankyer!’ he was in fact just saying: ‘Fares please, thank you.’

And now she began to decipher the codes. She realised that ‘lively’ meant not British – from a different culture. She learned that when people didn’t like something they said it was ‘interesting’ and when they didn’t like someone they said they were ‘a character’. If they really didn’t like someone, they said they were ‘very clever’.

It was OK to be clever as long as you said you weren’t. Students also said that they weren’t doing any work at all when in fact they were working hard. Barbara couldn’t understand this.

‘The English are strange.’ said Ben one afternoon. They were sitting in a café near the Gate Cinema waiting for James.

‘Yes,’ agreed Barbara. Later that night, back in her room, she took out a pad of paper.

‘Strange things about the English: Number 1’ she wrote.

‘There are some things that are bad, which you can talk about, and some things, which are good, that you can’t talk about.’

Barbara wondered if she should make a separate list. This would include the things you couldn’t talk about in England. But she would have to add lots of notes, too. Because while she had discovered that you couldn’t talk about how much money a person earned, you could talk about how much money a person spent. In fact the English students talked about money and debts all the time. They were very proud of bargains. If you bought a second-hand designer suit, you didn’t try to hide the fact. You told everyone how cheap it was. Barbara thought this was very odd.

You could talk about sex – students seemed to talk about little else. And you could talk about falling in love. But you couldn’t talk about getting ill or dying. There was one student at the College, whose brother was ill, who told Barbara that no one would let her talk about it. In fact, considered Barbara, students in England generally didn’t want to talk about anything serious.

‘Strange things about the English: Number 2,’ she wrote. ‘The English talk all the time about the weather as if it was something that existed to annoy them. They expect it to be sunny, although it often rains. It’s as if they don’t really believe in their own climate. They decorate their gardens as if they were rooms indoors and then get very upset when, after it rains, all the pots and statues and things go green.’

Barbara had watched several television programmes where decorators went into people’s gardens and painted the fences bright purple. She thought that they were quite mad. Who on earth would want a purple fence? She could imagine what her grandmother would say if someone painted the fence around her chicken run purple.

Barbara had told her friends about her list and soon they were all making suggestions.

‘I’ve got one for you,’ said James. ‘Great,’ said Barbara. She took out her note pad.

‘What is it?’ she asked.

‘Whenever the English come back from abroad they always say what a lovely time they’ve had and how friendly everyone was. As if they don’t expect people to be friendly.’

‘That’s because they don’t expect people to be friendly, because they aren’t friendly to outsiders,’ said Shanika. ‘Especially in London. When I first came here I didn’t know what stop to get off on the Underground and when I asked the man sitting next to me, he just turned away and opened his newspaper.’

‘Not all English people are like that,’ said Ben.

‘No,’ said Barbara, ‘Everyone’s been really nice to me since I got here.’

‘That’s because you’re so beautiful,’ said James.

Barbara went red. ‘I’ve got a new one myself,’ she said. She picked up her pad. ‘The English visit churches to look at the architecture,’ she read.

Religion was another item that Barbara had written on her list of ‘Things that you mustn’t talk about in England.’ But what really surprised her was how much the English liked visiting churches. They never actually prayed in the churches – prayer was another word that worried them, but they enjoyed looking at the paintings and the carved seats that they called pews.

She had discovered that James was a Catholic, like her, and most Sundays, they would go to Mass together. He agreed with her about the English and churches but his mother was Italian, he said, and that made him different.

Barbara thought that his dark hair and relaxed manner must come from his mother. She liked James very much. He was in his second year studying French and Italian at University College in London. Barbara had discovered that London had several different universities. His university was not far from the British Museum and he had taken her there to look at the ancient Greek and Egyptian antiquities.

‘Those are the Elgin Marbles,’ he said pointing to some carved statues of women. Barbara loved the way their costumes seemed to be alive.

‘They came from the Parthenon in Athens. The Greeks want them back.’

‘I’m not surprised,’ said Barbara. ‘If they were mine, I’d want them back, too.’

Barbara found that she was spending more and more time with James. He wasn’t at all like Hugh Grant, but she now thought that he was much more attractive than the English film star. And when they walked across Hungerford Bridge holding hands to go to see a film at the National Film Theatre, it didn’t matter one little bit that the bridge was not at all romantic, but had noisy diesel trains running beside the walkway.

She was in London. She was in love and she lived in Notting Hill. What more could anyone ask for?

© Antoinette Moses, 2000

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