Opinion

In memory of my mother, 50 years after her death

A family pilgrimage to Notting Hill stirs up memories of a childhood

John Bird as a baby with his mother and brother

John Bird (in the pram) with his mother and older brother. Photo courtesy of John Bird

The other night I had a dream that I was helping a much-respected person I knew to make a large meal for 50 Big Issue vendors and staff. Things seemed to work well. Then it went badly wrong and the well-respected person got angry and threw everything away. I was gobsmacked but tried to rescue everything by going out and buying 50 fish and chip suppers. Turning disaster into something else, because what united us was not so much what we ate, but that we ate together. 

When I awoke I realised I had to get on a train and go to London to attend a ceremony that I had arranged to commemorate the 50 years since my mother lost her fight for life. The ceremony meant returning to the graveyard that she had finally been laid to rest in, with some of my children and grandchildren, and my wife and ex-wife (still a family friend). But I could not face it. I could not face the endless sea of gravestones. Nor the sadness of hovering there with flowers to replace the long-dead flowers of 1973. So, up early after that dream debacle in a West End kitchen, I rang round and rearranged the venue.  

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We would meet at Westbourne Park station in Notting Hill and walk around, traipse the manor that I was born in and which my Irish mother entered when she got off the boat from Ireland in 1939, aged 18. The first stop was the erstwhile pub, The Princess Alexandra, where the man she married had been playing the piano. The man she had six boys with, and with whom she suffered a life of privation. Hunger, need, evictions, and near evictions for much of her life. She died at 52; he outlasted her by 10 years.  

But the spirit of this visit was not to be grim. If anything, it was about a young woman who was full of life and Jesus, and a love of pubs, and dancing, and telling stories about the old country. A romantic young woman who met life in the slums of Notting Hill with brio.  

The pub has been converted to a restaurant, its rough corners rounded off. It’s not the place I sat outside with my elder brothers awaiting a lemonade and a bag of crisps while our parents celebrated within. Opposite the pub had been the slummed streets of my childhood home, containing the large house where we had two rooms. Alas so damaged, that most wretched street in Notting Hill, that the army of middle-class colonisers who usually transformed slums to palaces had no chance. It was so decayed and broken a neighbourhood that the London Borough of Westminster pulled it down in the late 1970s. The Wessex Gardens Estate rose where once I played in St Stephen’s Gardens, and where the nascent housing association movement began in the 1960s.  

The only time I ever ventured into one of the flats was to visit a woman who had bought the place. The locals displaced by the slum clearance were dispersed and do not live there now. Social housing – in London at least – was not there for the generations who came out of the slums. None of my family made it into social housing in the ever changing and gentrifying Notting Hill.  

We walked past a pub that is now a Michelin-starred restaurant. There my father would go in the ’40s and ’50s when things got too hot at the Princess Alexandra, named after Edward, Prince of Wales’s wife, the daughter-in-law of Queen Victoria. Or around another corner at The British Oak, named after the miraculous escape (by hiding in an oak) of the Prince Charles who, when later crowned King Charles II, had Oliver Cromwell dug up from his grave, tried and then hung, drawn and quartered at what is now Marble Arch. 

Notting Hill was deeply loyal to royals of all ages, with Queen Victoria actually born a five-minute walk from Notting Hill in Kensington Palace – a true local girl made good.  

Then down to what was The Golden Cross in the Portobello Road where my mother-to-be got her first job as a barmaid. Now renamed, it sells posh food and hosts the international gathering that Notting Hill has become. No sign of sawdust to mop up spilt beer and spit, or the occasional pukes of the exhausted labourers who possibly marvelled at the lovely country girl, as yet untainted by slum life and slum marriage.  

Although the poor have been largely winnowed out of Notting Hill there are, with the social housing that remains, signs of a sort of social mix. It remains one of its attractions. Housing associations and local authority housing still cling on, making the highly expensive Notting Hill still feel buzzy with people other than the filmmakers, actors, producers and TV talent who are now mixed with the truly wealthy.  I was born in what now looks like a mix of grunge and money. Around the corner is the Catholic church where my mother attended mass and was married – with special dispensation from the chief cardinal of the English branch of the Church of Rome – to a local Protestant boy. The church stands remarkably firm and fine looking, the scene of many funerals of my Irish family who came here before my mother.  

Yet the school attached to St Michael and All Angels, where we boys were schooled, is now a private house. Its playground now a front garden.  

Notting Hill and my mother seem soaked in an ever-changing history. Out of all of this grew me, the man who later co-founded The Big Issue with wealthy old friend Gordon Roddick. Slums met wealth and made something positive possible. Alas we ran out of time to visit the hospital in Chelsea where she died and my youngest son was born.  

This is a memorial, in words, to my mother.  

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here 

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