One of my favourite walks is from my home through the Portobello market up to Notting Hill Gate. Once you fight past the tourists, it is a pleasant stroll. A few years ago, I spotted a blue plaque on the side of a house. To my amazement, it was where the novelist George Orwell lived in 1927. The author of Animal Farm and 1984 lived at number 22 Portobello Road.
To my disappointment, the great man never wrote anything worthwhile staying at the house except for a few articles. But it did inspire him to write some important stuff in the early 1930s. According to Gordon Bowker, “In late 1927, his friend Ruth Pitter, the poet, found him an unheated attic at 22 Portobello Road, a short walk from his old home at Notting Hill Gate. The room was so cold that he had to warm his hands over a candle-flame before he could start writing in the morning.
From this icy cell, he set out in old clothes to mingle with the tramps and down-and-outs who slept along the Embankment, in common lodging-houses and ‘spikes’, the casual wards of workhouses. Most of these spikes and lodging-houses (or ‘kips’) have long gone, though a few old workhouse buildings survive, often as NHS hospitals. It was from a kip in Lambeth that he tramped down to Kent to go hop-picking among the East Enders and gipsy families who migrated there every year for a working holiday. This experience was recaptured in his first article for the New Statesman in October 1931 and lay at the heart of his second novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter.
As I said, Notting Hill is a great attraction for tourists looking for a door that does not exist and a bookshop that does not exist except in the film. As I walked by Orwell’s house last week, two young women, whom I assumed were tourists, took a photo outside the house. I guessed they had not spotted the blue plaque, and I was correct. They were even more surprised when I told them who had lived there. I asked one girl if she had read him, and she replied only 1984. I asked her where she was from, and she said Spain. I did not have the energy to tell her that Orwell had fought Fascism in her country. Or that, in my opinion, Homage To Catalonia is his greatest book.