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‘Neighbours are the Worst People to live beside’ The 1958 Notting Hill Riots as Dramatic Spectacle, Drama as Analysis

Simon Goulding

Puck’s message to the young is that England’s essential nature, throughout its history, is to be constantly invaded by new races which the older settlers first resisted, and then accepted once the genius of each race became fused in a fresh of the English soul. Puck’s lesson is that hostility to the invading race is natural, but equally so the wholehearted acceptance of its presence once it has lost its alien nature and is contributing to the mongrel glory of the English people.

Colin MacInnes. ‘The New British’ in The Spectator June 1963.

The Notting Hill riots of 1958 did not see anyone killed, there were no huge areas of cityscape destroyed and the number of arrests and convictions only numbered one hundred and forty. Compared with the effect of the Watts riots of 1965 or Detroit in 1968 on the American national consciousness the significance of Notting Hill seems less on the British national psyche. And yet at the time its effect was profound. Here is the country that had stood united against Hitler, all creeds and faiths of the Empire together united against the Axis powers. 6.8 million Indians and 10,000 from the Caribbean had fought for the country in all theatres in all services. Now just thirteen years later there would be fighting on the streets between black and white. Part of that political disengagement may be put down to the Macmillan Government trying to suppress any inquiry into what happened. In the British fashion it would be nothing explicit: a nod here, a wink there; downplay the statistics; shift the focus in the reports. For instance: in his official report Detective Sergeant M Walters of the Notting Hill police said the national press had been wrong to portray the ‘widespread series of street disturbances’ as ‘racial’ riots: ‘Whereas there certainly was some ill feeling between white and coloured residents in this area, it is abundantly clear much of the trouble was caused by ruffians, both coloured and white, who seized on this opportunity to indulge in hooliganism.’(Travis, 3) Andrew Marr suggests that there were three rules for immigrants to successfully integrate: ‘first, be white, and second, if you cannot be white, be small in number, and third, if all else fails, feed the brutes. (Marr, 195) By 1958 the first two rules were being broken in style and numbers.

The intention of this article is not to assess the ways in which the immigrant boom of the 1950s impacted as a whole upon the British psyche, but to examine how one particular incident reflected contemporary attitudes. This was the first televised riot. The BBC (from neighbouring Shepherd’s Bush) and the newly emergent ITV News would send their cameras to cover the incidents; this was simultaneously both a local and a national event. The events of that weekend gained for a time a national reach and in consequence people wanted to know what had gone on. For a writer like Colin MacInnes, also a prolific journalist, the opportunities afforded to someone who knew both the people and the area seemed to offer that rarest of opportunities: artistic and social serendipity. This raises the issue of conflict between verisimilitude and narrative expediency MacInnes did not plan to feature the riot when he started writing his novel Absolute Beginners in the summer of 1958. The manuscript was well advanced by the time the August Bank holiday came along. That the finale may have been a late addition to the text may present some awkwardness in construction but it is a location that had already been featured in the novel. Also, how does one assess the impact that an event such as the Notting Hill riot had? Is the realist novel capable of assessing the multiple viewpoints or the conflicting perceptions? Can it reflect the fear and the exultation of the people on the streets? Or is a more allegorical form of narrative required: one that seeks to offer a wider interpretation and requires the reader/viewer to reach their own understanding of what they see? But if there is an allegorical or ‘fable’ element within the text then do we need to consider the relationship between the writer and his audience and from that explore the relevance of the form to the questions that the writer has set?

When discussing Notting Hill it is essential to understand what constitutes the area we are discussing. Notting Hill can be something of an amorphous term; a catchall title for parts of W2, 10 and 11. So what do we mean then by Notting Hill? Is it the Bayswater Road area and the streets around Notting Hill Station? Is it the neighbourhood around Powis Square, location of that quintessential Notting Hill film Performance, or the Portobello Road/Ladbroke Grove streets featured in Richard Curtis’ film Notting Hill? But then what of Notting Dale, the third and perhaps least known area: an area focused on Latimer Road. Each has their validity to be part of Notting Hill or to stand for all of it, yet does such metonymic fragmentation serve to increase or damage our understanding of what is the locale. Such a discussion highlights the problem in labelling areas of a city: if our understanding of what to call an area lacks consistency how can there be stability in the representation of what happens there? If questions of identity and ownership to an area are elastic in their interpretation then perhaps there is an element of predictability to issues of conflict and territoriality. Not everywhere is as well defined as Soho.

In Absolute Beginners the Notting Dale area is renamed ‘Napoli’, an acknowledgement of the immigrant history of the area that went back to the turn of the nineteenth century. It is an area with a history of poverty and decay. As the novel makes clear the affluent fifties passed Notting Dale by and this interpretation of the neighbourhood is supported by plenty of historical evidence. Edward Pilkington recalls that ‘[d]uring the fifties the inhabitants of Notting Dale were still living in poverty of a different shade and the fruits of the age of affluence […] were enjoyed by very few. Most people lived hand to mouth and anything left over at the end of the week was spent in pubs.’(Pilkington, 81) Mike and Trevor Phillips describe the area in the 1950s as:

[A] large population of internal migrants, gypsies and Irish, many of them transient single men, packed into a honeycomb of rooms with communal kitchens, toilets and no bathrooms. It had depressed English families who had lived through the war years … trapped in low-income jobs and rotten housing. It had a raft of dodgy pubs and poor street lighting. It had gang fighting, illegal drinking clubs, gambling and prostitution. It had a large proportion of frightened and resentful residents. (Phillips, 171)

Certainly MacInnes recognises that Napoli is a ‘stagnating slum. It’s dying this part of London.’ The narrator describes the streets where he lives:

[B]roken milk bottles everywhere scattering the cracked asphalt roads like snow, and cars parked in the streets looking as if they’re stolen or abandoned, and a strange number of urinals tucked away such as you find nowhere else in London, and red curtains, somehow, in all the windows, and diarrhoea-coloured street lighting – man I tell you, you’ve only got to be there for a minute to know there’s something radically wrong.(MacInnes, 47)

There is, however, little further analysis made of the socio-economic background within the novel. The poverty in the area offers a quasi-bohemian experience for the beats and dropouts. The unnamed narrator lives there because it is cheap and no one bothers him there. The early sections of Absolute Beginners present not quite an idyll but certainly somewhere that lies outside of the commercial and political heart of the city. Napoli is not the sort of an area where the Latin American ‘diplomat’ Mickey Ponderoso or the advertising guru Vendice Partners would inhabit, its lacks the smoothness or the sense of centrality. Napoli is one of the liminal spaces of the city, bordered by the canals, railway lines and roads it suggests itself to be part of the city and yet also a way out.

The above description by MacInnes would suggest there is something inevitable to what follows and, in truth, this was never a quiet area. ‘In Ladbroke Grove, for instance, there were simmering battles between gangs of Dominicans, St Lucians and Trinidadians’ (Bradbrook, 334). MacInnes is unwilling to acknowledge the economic and intra-racial background tensions and see the riots as merely Anglo-Saxon hostility towards the coloured. Dominic Bradbrook notes ‘[r]acism alone does not explain the disturbances; they were as much a product of poverty and despair as they were a reflection of racial prejudice’(Bradbrook, 336). The incidents in the St Ann’s area of Nottingham — noted in the novel — that occurred at the beginning of August were also as much about a resentment against the living conditions of the area as explicit anger against the coloured population living there; the majority of whom it should be noted lived in the neighbouring ward of Sneinton. Like North Kensington they were poor, dilapidated, areas; both had a mixed population of immigrants and poor whites. Yet, in 1963 MacInnes is able to offer a wider interpretation of what happened in 1958. He writes: ‘[n]or were the whites who provoked the riots in any sense representative of the population as those who do so in South Africa or the southern states of the US. They belong to a rootless self-destroying lumpen fringe, detesting because self-detesting’ (MacInnes, 731). The immediacy of Absolute Beginners is all well and good, but is means that something has to be sacrificed and in this case it is the wider political understanding that the passage of time affords.

What we now understand as the 1958 Notting Hill riots began on Bramley Road outside the Latimer Road Tube Station on the evening of Friday 29 August when a Swedish woman, Majbritt Morrison, married to a Trinidadian, was attacked by a crowd after she tried to help a West Indian man being attacked. Such incidents were not uncommon. Leaving aside the local warriors, it was handy for Teds from Fulham, Battersea and Elephant and Castle … [v]iolence between the various factions, the police and any unfortunate bystanders was endemic’(Phillips, 170). MacInnes offers in Absolute Beginners no reflection of that fact that ‘Notting Dale contained a higher proportion than any other district of bold, reckless young black men who lived their lives out in public and would not cross the road for anyon’ (Phillips, 173). Nor is there any reflection of the wider anarchic atmosphere with ‘[y]oung children of ten treating the whole affair as a great joke and shouting ‘Come on, let’s get the blacks and the coppers. Let’s get on with it’ noted (Phillips, 176).

MacInnes does offer a number of set pieces developed from real incidents: a group of ‘yobbos’ assault a couple of Sikhs (MacInnes 167-68); a Jamaican woman with a pram meets a white woman with child and neither gives way, the men folk join in and the milk bottles start flying (170); a driver is attacked and a young man is chased into a greengrocer’s shop where the shopkeeper’s wife defends him. In one respect they are true of the riot, they are all white/black violence but there is no sense of the citywide dimension of the riots or of the gangs that converged on the area from all over the city. True, there are very few good white people here, which is about right. The police are cowards and fools, the locals are apathetic and malicious with only a very few of the older generation showing any spirit in resisting the violence. The shopkeeper’s wife for example:

This one old girl, with her grey hair all in a mess, and her face flushed with fury, she stood there surrounded by this crowd of hundreds, and she bawled them out. She said they were a stack of cowards and gutter bastards … [she] will go straight up to heaven like a supersonic rocket when she dies –- nothing can stop that one. (178)

There was sadly a limited amount of this type of condemnation that weekend, mostly it was the Communist Party of Great Britain who organised bodyguards or did the shopping for women too scared to go out. Other details and incident employed by MacInnes in the text noting white British reaction do have a basis in the actual events of the weekend. MacInnes describes ‘Teds: groups of them, not doing anything, but standing in circles, with their heads just a bit bent down’ (174). PC Victor Coe said he had seen a man called David Slater in Artesian Road ‘sitting astride a motorcycle in company with a crowd of about 50 youths dressed in Edwardian-type clothing. I told him to move and he said: ‘Why the hell should I?’ (Travis, 3).

MacInnes notes of those who simply observed that they were the ‘[q]uite decent, respectable … white collar workers and their wives, I expect, who’d probably been out to do their shopping [they watch two men black men assualted] And once again that was that’(MacInnes, 177). A report in the Manchester Guardian noted of people watching the trouble ‘Among the faces, some of them distorted, some merely curious that congregate along the pavements there lies an appalling pleasure with self. They are waiting for something to happen, and too many of them will be stirred to gratification when it does’(Guardian 3 September 1958).

It has the potential to be a great climax and yet it feels oddly disjoined, almost impressionistic in its attempt to describe the violence. Unable to give an account of the whole area the text aims to offer a series of key impressions that sum up the whole of the experience of that weekend. Consequently this gives no sense of the greater context of the violence. Only very briefly does the hostility directed at the police by the white population gain a mention. PC Ian McQueen, for example, was told on the Friday night: ‘Mind your own business, coppers. Keep out of it. We will settle these niggers our way. We’ll murder the bastards.’(Travis, 2002) Nor do we get from the text any sense of the citywide scale of the action, the context of the area and its history as ‘a violent playground for gangs.’ As Mike Phillips notes (see above) the young men of this area were not the type to compromise. Within the narrative of Absolute Beginners, however, the impression is that the Afro-Caribbean men of the area are cool cats and wise men rather than flesh-and-blood individuals with the needs and attitudes of young males away from home. Yet crossing the road may well have been the best thing for them. Notting Dale is close to the BBC Headquarters and as the narrator notes ‘My God, if I could get in there and tell them –- all the millions! Just take them across the railway tracks, not a quarter of a mile away, and show them what’s happening in the capital city of our country’(MacInnes, 179). What the narrator does not know is that individuals in the BBC were trying to engage with what was happening in W11.

How best then to put in context Quatermass and the Pit? Writer Nigel Kneale and producer Rudolf Cartier’s third Quatermass story is for many the key British science-fiction story of the last sixty years. Only The War of the Worlds can, arguably, match it for seminal influence. Like Wells Kneale realised early on the potential of science fiction as both allegory and analysis. The Quatermass Experiment in 1953 had articulated social concerns such as the emerging space race, atomic power, scientific hubris and the misplaced power of the press. Quatermass II (1955) presented ‘an implicit criticism of the secrecy and detachment of the British political and scientific, exploiting popular fears that the modern world has passed beyond the understanding … of common people … It reflects an unease with the technocratic society’(Bradbrook, 255-56). With Quatermass and the Pit Kneale wanted to ‘explain man’s savagery and intolerance by way of images that had been throbbing away in the human brain since it first developed.’ ‘I tried to speculate,’ writes Kneale ‘on where racial unrest, violence and purges first came from’(Pixley 28). This new story then would be a ‘race hatred fable that broke through to an encouraging large and intelligent audience’(Sight & Sound 88).

Kneale does not opt for simplistic binaries in this story. What oppositions there are in the narrative tend to follow on from the themes of Quatermass II: the role of the government (or establishment) and its duty to protect the status quo against the scientific rationalism of the scientists here represented by Quatermass and the archaeologist Rooney. It is a variation on the dilemma that in the sixteenth century Galileo would experience – the authoritarian state against the spirit of scientific exploration, faith/dogma versus enquiry. For example the ape skeletons found in Part 1 have physiological structures unlike anything that fits the established evolutionary pattern. The initial response is that the archaeologists have misjudged the evidence, or even that they are German fakes (this is only thirteen years after the end of the war). Indeed the rocket is initially thought to be a V-Weapon. By Part 4 Quatermass surmises that ‘Apes were taken from this planet to another – and –Altered. By selective breeding –- surgical methods –- perhaps both. I suppose the aim would be to increase the intelligence’(Kneale, 117). The establishment reacts with horror to the idea that the human condition is a development of alien intervention. However, as the preceding parts have demonstrated there have been seven hundred years of recorded acts of disturbance in the area of the pit. The spaceship found in the crater is somehow sentient. It still exudes some aura of evil –- or is it something that we assume as evil yet is really part of our endemic being? The figures seen near the pit over the years are horned beasts. The creatures found in the spaceship possess horns and gargoyle-like faces. What they are is part, surmises Quatermass, of our unconscious, cultural memory whose origin has been lost. A priest who comes across the possessed drill operator Sladden describes his having ‘been in contact with spiritual evil’(134). At this point in the narrative (Part 5 of 6) the viewer may still be under the impression that this is in someway a story of paranoia for the story still exists as a straightforward drama of officialdom and the individual, only the thriller element differentiating it from the world of an Ealing comedy.

Later in Part 5 Quatermass and his team attempt to replicate the experience of Sladden. They record the images as seen by one of the archaeologists. What they record is in image of Mars many centuries before, a memory that has been dormant, merely waiting in the ship.

Arthopods exactly like those we found. You’ll have noticed that they were killing –- and being killed. I think we may have seen ritual slaughter, to preserve a fixed society –- to rid it of mutations … now my concern is that this stored memory of killing should be coupled with another power that hull in the pit seems to possess – the power to redirect human energy (151).

Part 6 is the riot. The sentient ship, now activated by electrical power from the TV cameras there to film the establishment explanation for its presence, begins its preservation programme – to ‘kill every mutation away from the set pattern! Destroy all that doesn’t belong to it’(179). Peter Hutchings describes the role of the aliens in this final episode as ‘reveal[ing] and clarify[ing] something that is already there, with their subsequent destruction a means of dealing, if only temporarily, with internal social tensions (Hutchings 40-1). A kind of race war breaks out, its violence ‘related to underlying social tensions to do with class and race conflict apparent in Britain at this time … the violence has a frighteningly spontaneous, irrational quality’(40). In 1960 Ruth Glass would note that in relation to Notting Hill ‘[n]igger-hunting’ simply spread and collected an increasing number of partisans –- active forces and passive spectators –- simultaneously in several districts’(Glass 134). For Peter Hutchings there is an equally pessimistic perspective:

In a sense, aliens always win. What is apparent in Quatermass and the Pit however … is how close to the surface this realisation actually is … It is as if Britain, displaced from an imperial history and the glories of the second world war and caught up in a series of bewildering social changes, is more open to self-doubts and an accompanying acknowledgement of its own limits.,,, To know the aliens more clearly is to know oneself as well [i.e. Quatermass, H.G Wells] (46).

The script therefore asks some difficult questions of Britain in 1958. Among current critics Ian Hunter suggests that ‘Quatermass and the Pit ends with scenes of rioting [that] reflect suppressed tensions within postwar Britain, but here the riots are due to a race memory of alien intervention and erupt across the country in bouts of atavistic bloodletting whose purpose is to purify the human species’(Hunter 109-110). Hunter does however make the mistake that MacInnes avoids in failing to realise that one of the key points of urban violence can be its geographical containment; not just within the city but in one clearly delineated part of it. As noted above, the narrator is made all too well aware that despite the short distance between Notting Dale and Shepherd’s Bush ‘it was not a national frontier, of course, which define[s] the limits of the riot area, but a class frontier’(Gould, 136). Ruth Glass may be right when she makes her point about simultaneous outbreaks of violence in several areas but applying it to the macro-city model will always collapse the assumption. There is always a territoriality to the dispute, which MacInnes does recognise, a localisation to the violence based as it so often on local issues of housing and employment.

Maybe this is the problem that MacInnes has in trying to offer an objective assessment of what happened in Notting Hill; he lacks the necessary critical distance. Tony Gould notes in his biography that MacInnes referred to his Caribbean lovers as ‘dark angels’ ‘[which] he rather romantically (and patronisingly) called them’(Gould, 95). Ian Campbell was equally as dismissive: ‘His patronising attitude towards blacks could be dreadful: His Lady Bountiful act and his sexual abuse of them did a lot of people a lot of harm’(205). Horace Ové wrote that ‘[h]e wanted to get whipped as black people had been by whites. Whites had to pay for it; and blacks had to be violent’(219). The MacInnes focus is a combination of romanticisation and guilty white liberal revisionism. He would visit and watch but like Orwell, and unlike Genet, these were exercises in observation, voyeurism and journalism. Cognitive understanding cannot be gained from observation alone; physical, emotional and spiritual awareness is also required. Time and time again there is a retreat from any closer contact and therefore a deeper understanding of the black immigrant experience. Too often supposed insight reads more as simple condescension, too often in Absolute Beginners (and City of Spades) African and West Indians seem to offer fifties Britain wonderful clothes, sunny dispositions and natural rhythm rather than realised character.

However, to suggest that Kneale’s focus is wholly on the Caucasian is slightly misleading, for the ‘Quatermass stories have a tendency to view individuals as existing primarily within and in relation to groups, institutions and collectives’(Hutchings 39). This echoes then the role of the Second World War in presenting an idea of national identity. The effort of the war required changes in society demanded by the people who lived through the period. One example of this would be the Beveridge Report and the subsequent 1944 Education Act. Collectively, ‘Britain would be a better, more just and integrated nation after the war than it was before.’(39) The events of 1958 then present an equally collective shock. The violence suggests, ‘that Quatermass’ Britain is visibly weak and vulnerable, caught as it is in a kind of collective post-war doze.’(41) Dan Jacobson writing in December 1958 noted of the white men convicted of rioting that they:

[W]eren’t sunken nobodies; they were rather jaunty anybodies … victims of a complex of attitudes and beliefs which seem to be in the very bone and marrow of what we call our ‘civilisation’ … I believe that they –- and a great many of those who followed their example –- felt themselves in some special and terrible way permitted to attack the coloureds who were their victims; and that in their attitudes to what they did … there was an element of self-righteousness (Jacobson, 4-5).

‘We are the Martians,’ states Quatermass at the end. ‘We have knowledge of ourselves … of the ancient, destructive urges in us … Every war crisis, witch-hunt, race riot and purge … is a reminder and a warning’(188). How much more honest is this than the denial of MacInnes’ narrator for whom ‘everything that you relied on … Your sense of security and of there being some plan … just disappears’ (MacInnes 179). He should have listened harder and watched more. Yes, MacInnes realises, if tacitly at times, that there were complications and other factors to what happened in Notting Hill August Bank Holiday 1958 but there is a continual shying away from any further commitment to explore it in the text. It is in the allegorical form that some of the harder questions are therefore approached, questions of basic inheritance and predisposition of violence towards others. MacInnes, for all his closeness and friendship with the Afro-Caribbean population misses the larger socio-economic questions of the time and therefore, ironically, marginalizes the issues of race and British attitudes towards it. He should have listened to A. G Bennett who understood that it was never the landlady who had the problem; it was always the neighbour, but ‘to find ‘im is the trouble’. What Bennett failed to realise that in this country the neighbour may not realise there is a problem either.

Works Cited

Bradbrook, Dominic. Never Had It So Good. 2005. London: Abacus, 2006.

Glass, Ruth. Newcomers: the West Indians in London. Allen & Unwin, 1960.

Gould, Tony. Inside Outsider. London: Chatto & Windus. The Hogarth Press, 1983.

Hurd, Geoff. Ed. National Fictions. London: BFI, 1984.

Hunter, I. Q. ‘The Day the Earth Caught Fire.’ British Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. I.Q. Hunter. Routledge: London and New York, 1999. 99-112.

Hutchings, Peter. ‘We’re the Martians now’: British SF Invasion fantasies of the 1950s & 1960s.’ British Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. I.Q. Hunter. Routledge: London and New York, 1999. 33-47.

Jacobson, Dan. ‘After Notting Hill’ Encounter December 1958. 3-10.

Johnson, Pamela Hansford, review of City of Spades in New Statesman, 21 September 1957. 361-362.

Kneale Nigel. Sight and Sound. Spring 1959. 86-88.

—, Quatermass and the Pit. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960.

—.‘The Quatermass Memoirs.’ 8 March 1996 as reprinted in Quatermass Viewing Notes, Andrew Pixley. BBC, 2005.

MacInnes, Colin. Absolute Beginners. 1959. London: Allison and Busby, 1985.

MacInnes, Colin. ‘The New British.’ The Spectator June 1963. 729-732.

Marr, Andrew. A History of Modern Britain. 2006. London: Pan Books, 2007.

Phillips, Mike & Trevor Phillips. Windrush. The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain. London: Harper Collins, 1998.

Pilkington, Edward. Beyond the Mother Country. West Indians and the Notting Hill White Riots. I.B Tauris: London, 1988.

Travis, Alan. The Guardian. Saturday 24 August 2002. 3.

To Cite This Article:

Simon Goulding, ‘”Neighbours are the Worst People to live beside” The 1958 Notting Hill Riots as Dramatic Spectacle, Drama as Analysis’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 8 Number 1 (March 2010). Online at Accessed on [date of access].