A ‘flaneuse’ in Notting Hill, Portobello Market!?

My observation of the famous antiques market, located in the Royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea, north-west of London, begins as I walk down 55,56, 57 Portobello Road, greeted by the wind and rustling leaves sticking onto brightly pastel coloured house, virtually stuck to one another.

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Although Portobello Road is lined with other businesses such as restaurants, pubs, and coffee shops my main focus is on the stalls offering vintage clothing, jewellery, posters, antiques, music records and instruments, all the way from Westbourne Grove up to Golborne Road, and under the westway out to Ladbroke Grove. I stop across 24-54 Pembridge Road, and carefully observe some vintage antiques that the tourists, as well as London natives are purchasing.

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Historically, Portobello Road was built during the Victorian era, before the mid-nineteenth century, it was known as a country lane which connected Portobello farm with Kensal Green in the north, and Notting hill in the south. The Victorian architecture of the road serves to be a huge attraction, as the tightly squeezed houses and shops which curve down the road create a feeling of intimacy within the atmosphere of cultural diversity, adding to this friendly perception of a market in the metropolis.

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As I walk down toward the end on 88th Portobello Road, I’m aware that different foreign languages are spoken; as well as the tourists who are speaking in French and Italian, on my left hand side, I notice two older women speaking Russian, walking and stopping specifically at every stall offering jewellery and fur coats. In return, they take careful observation of me noting down as I pay attention to what they’re looking for. One of them eventually gives me a suspicious look, perhaps wary of what I am writing. In reference back to Baudelaire’s theories of transforming the city as an idea of space investigation, and Georg Simmel, who’s theory focused on the fact that the city creates social bonds and attitudes towards others. In many way their work summarises the de-human, robotic cold feeling this woman is giving me, would she speak to me if she knew I didn’t have harmful intentions?

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Further along 26, Denbigh Terrace, I notice more tourists whose attention is captured by the vintage shop offering vintage sets of tea and plate settings, so I take the opportunity to interview a few of the tourists walking around, as I was particularly interested in the sort of things they have bought at the market.

Tommaso, 25, visiting London, from Milan, Italy

“Hi Tommaso, is this your first time visiting Portobello market?”

“Hi, yes, it’s my first time. It’s my first time visiting London actually, so how could I not come to Portobello market?”

“What have you bought at Portobello market so far?”

“I’ve got some vintage tea sets with me. I’m looking for some more interesting antiques.”

“If you could summarise the atmosphere of the market, as you’re walking through it, in three words, which words would you use and why?”

“Exquisite- because some of the antiques that you find here are so old, yet delicately kept in their original form, lively- there’s loads of people around here, even during the winter time, diverse- a sense of diversity of cultures compacted into one.”

“Do you feel this sense of cultural diversity in London everywhere, or mainly in market places?”

“I think it’s precisely these market places which best underline the cultural diversity in London”

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Jeanne, 19, visiting London, from Paris, France

“Hi Jeanne, I hope you’re enjoying your stroll around Portobello market. Is this your first time in Portobello market, and what have you bought with you today?”

“Hi, I often come into the market when I’m visiting my family who live in London. I am addicted to collecting handmade jewels, I’ve got some silver bracelets today, and I’m looking some vintage posters now. I’ve gotten some other things from Portobello before, such as my leather bag with my initials printed, you can see…” She flashes her little light brown leather shoulder bag with the letters ‘JS’ carefully crafted on the right hand side.

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As I continue walking down 5-15 Elgin Crescent, right across Ladbroke Grove, my mind wonders more on the idea of a female ‘flaneuse’ located in a market place was some what seen as appropriate due to the sociological attitudes that people had in the late eighteenth-century. In my ways a market like atmosphere surrounding a female was a typical place associated with a middle to upper class woman, not only buying bread and groceries, but also in other particular instances, picking out clothing made of materials such as silk, velvet, and lace. In reference to Virginia Woolf’s writing on a ‘flaneuse’, a female equivalent of Walter Benjamin’s male portrayal of a ‘flaneur’, I can quickly feel the sense of how one might find themselves in psycho-alienation amongst the condense crowd in the market. Despite the market’s cultural diversity, and friendliness amongst tourists, the feeling of capitalism and consumerism is not lost, in fact in many ways, it’s so evident that the atmosphere wouldn’t be the same without it.

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I stop inside a main Portobello Market stall hall, and my eyes are fixed onto a bunch of vintage posters…

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Shortly after interviewing the tourists who politely agreed to answer my questions, I sit to enjoy a warm cup of coffee in the ‘Coffee Plant’ café. A little coffee shop located at the heart of Portobello Road, where I take on the position of a modern day ‘flaneuse’.

Finally, the figures of these two old women sat directly outside me, catching my glance, not because they haven’t stopped smoking in the twenty minutes that I have been sat here, but because they seem to be drinking endless cups of filtered coffee. They, themselves closely observing people who are passing by. I attempt to read into what they’re taking about through their facial expressions and body language. I soon realise that one starts crying and the other is offering her a silk white handkerchief. The irony of being surrounded by a table of  young tourists laughing loudly behind me, the woman crying outside a coffee shop on Portobello market, as people pass by taking no acknowledgment of hardly anyone but the stalls displaying materialism in it’s best form,  led to my conclusion, that it was exactly in this moment I felt the mental realisation of life in the metropolis, and it was beautiful, in the most ambiguous way.

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