“Consuming Passions”: Hill Street Blues

apple IT’S HARD TO BELIEVE THAT I’M writing in praise of a property guy – an estate agent.

I’ve been coming to London for 25 years; I have spent half of them looking for the flat. Not just a flat; The Flat. It had to be light and charming but not seedy; most of all, it had to be in Notting Hill.

When I first arrived during the 1970s, Notting Hill was cheap and raunchy, a place a New Yorker could love, full of immigrants, writers, rockers. People still point with awe to the house where Jimi Hendrix died. When I found a bedsit in Horbury Crescent, the landlady whispered: “Write and tell your mother that this is more Kensington Gardens than Notting Hill.” I had no idea what she meant until I discovered that in the 1950s, Notting Hill had been the scene of ugly race riots. But I was in love.

“Wouldn’t it be fun to own a house in London, in Notting Hill?” I said to my father, who replied: “You want me to spend $27,000 for a house in where?” Still, whenever I came back to London, I’d head for Notting Hill, renting flats, camping out with friends, always looking, longing, wanting. Years turned into decades. In the early 1990s I had a windfall. (Ugly family painting turns out to be worth big bucks.) I was ready! Even before Notting Hill, the movie, though, the neighbour- hood was so hot you could fry an egg on it, though its denizens were more likely to be sautéing foie gras. Buying property made me a candidate for Prozac.

My only experience had been in New York where realtors, as they are known, were mostly women in Armani – Emporio for juniors – with hair that didn’t move much. In London, I discov- ered, estate agents were often male thirtysomethings, Guccis (suede) on their feet, not a lot between their ears, who showed me flats I couldn’t afford where I wouldn’t house a hamster. “There’s this chap you simply must meet,” people started saying on hearing my complaints. I was sceptical. Then I met him. His name was Niall McMahon. A tall, easy going guy, he’s been selling houses in Notting Hill for more than 35 years. He sells big, beautiful expensive houses, those dreamy, creamy Notting Hill villas on the ravishing garden squares – the Ladbrokes, the Stanleys, the Lansdownes. But although Niall is a successful businessman, this isn’t about property sales. It’s about a man who knows every house in the neighbour- hood, and sells each one as if it were a bespoke item.

We drank cappuccino together. Niall clocked my symptomslike a kindly GP. He understood that it was Notting Hill or nothing for me. But then he is, as he says with a wry smile, “The Notting Hill house doctor”. And although he doesn’t really deal in flats, he was game to take me on. He had Job’s patience. We trooped in and out of top floors and basements and peered at common parts where their condition, he remarked, often told you plenty about the quality of the other leaseholders. “I loved that one,” I’d say, and he’d say, “Yes, but are you aware that the house next door is full of sitting ten- ants?” or “There is that tube that runs underneath.” If I was convinced that some sexy “designer” kitchen made a flat more valuable, Niall would remind me that bringing in designers to jack up prices was meaningless, because you can’t predict the next owner’s taste. So we shopped. And I got to know something of Niall’s methods.

Almost before the phone would ring, he’d have his eye on a house for Mr and Mrs X who’d be com- ing home from America after four years, and what with two new babies, they needed a bigger place. He knew that their mews cottage, now too small, might just suit the Ws who called to say that their daughter was divorcing and would need a pied-à-terre to tide her over. At parties, I suddenly found people would sidle up to me and whisper, “How do I get onto Niall McMahon’s list?” It had become legend that if you were on this elusive list – more myth than reality, I reckon – you would get first crack at the best houses in Notting Hill. When I asked Niall about it, he just smiled; he gives preference to, well, everyone. But didn’t I hear something about Madonna? Niall’s not talking. In Niall’s wake, I trailed through Notting Hill where he not only works but lives with his wife, Candy, an ardent tennis fan. Their daughter, Emily, lives nearby, as does son Barney, a talented artist who painted the Notting Hill mural on the wall next to the Pharmacy restaurant.

This is Niall’s turf; he is one of its passionate historians. I learned how, in the 1800s, speculators built the coveted garden squares for the new gentry. How, by the second world war, the houses had been chopped up for flats and bedsits. Greedy landlords took over in the 1940s and 1950s, but Notting Hill became a refuge for West Indian immigrants who were refused lodging elsewhere. In the l960s, Notting Hill came into its own. Conservation meant that people could no longer wreck the great Victorian houses at will. In the 1980s, the money came. Prices skyrocketed. And we looked some more. I closed in on a mews house that fell through when we discovered that the roof was falling in.

Prices went up. People mentioned Kilburn! But Niall understood. “Values have gone up in Notting Hill 10 times in 10 years, it shows no sign of slowing down, but people want to live here because it remains a village. And there’s the quality of the architecture,” he said. “We don’t have the same kinds of covenants that govern other areas, such as the Eatons and Cadogans, which are controlled by family estates. They can, for instance, say that you must paint your house white. Notting Hill, with its multicoloured houses, is more aesthetically distinctive.” I was learning. Learning that location matters, of course, but so does architec- ture, green space and “communications”, as Niall called them; easy routes to the airport and City have a bearing on hous- ing values. Looking at me, he would add, grinning: “And the restaurants are good.” After yet another search – I’m talking years that Niall stuck with me – I’d head back to New York, despondent. Then the phone rang. “Now next time you’re over, there’s a very nice little…” The Flat is mine now. And it’s in Notting Hill on communal gardens where the blue hydrangeas are in bloom. It was thanks to Niall that I found it, who made sure that I loved it, who gave me the courage to get the mortgage. When I look out of my windows – which I’m doing now – I think I can just see him hurrying across the street, another patient in tow, trying to help with one more case of the Notting Hill blues.