There will be a series of tales called ‘Living on The Hill’ covering life on Campden Hill, London W8. Campden Hill is a special part of London. It is not the most expensive, but it is close. There are ritzier areas than this, but those are usually full of foreigners, investors and itinerants who do not live there. Knightsbridge is a fabulous address rather than a place for wife and family.
At the same time, The Hill is understated. Anyone driving a Rolls Royce does not live here. When you have a full-size swimming pool in your basement and a living room that takes 100 people, you really don’t need to attract attention.
None of the houses seem special from the outside.
If you have a weakness for flashy cars, they are stored in underground car spaces and only come out at night or on trips to the continent. There is something about going down the ‘AutoRoute du Soleil’ in a sports car en route to a wonderful holiday in Nice or Cap d’Antibes. No one takes any notice of you. Enjoy!
On the other hand, in England, flashy cars are at risk of vandalism (keys surreptitiously run by the side!) In safe areas for flashy cars such as Park Lane, we have vulgar people who want attention and rev their vehicles and other anti-social attention-grabbing behaviour. They became such a nuisance that the local Council considered legislation against them.
So The Hill is not exactly an oasis, but it is relatively quiet. There is a local code. In restaurants, the locals dress shabbily. The fancy or flashy dressed are visitors. For us residents, the restaurants are ‘our locals’ and it is like we just dropped by as an afterthought (Michelin stars notwithstanding!)
Apart from private gardens there is Holland Park with its marvellous Japanese garden
We also have Kensington Gardens which is next to Diana’s old home – Kensington Palace.
There are, of course, ridiculous rumours about life on The Hill. One of these I can share. There were reports many years ago that Bill Gates bought a house in the area. He rather liked it and thought it would be even better to acquire the neighbouring property and merge the two properties. But this is The Hill! ‘Call yourself whatever you like, I am not moving for your convenience!’ is our attitude. However, he had been well advised by his agents. The humble estate agent passed a note to the owner with some handwritten numbers on it. ‘Ah! When would Mr Gates like to move in?’
Some rumours I cannot share. There are reports of a wild party held in our block. Younger members of the Danish aristocracy were said to have been present. An industrial clean up crew arrived in the morning or so it was alleged. Reports that I was present are entirely fanciful. I remember nothing and deny everything. My lips are sealed.
Why might these stories be interesting? On the one hand, my fellow Africans might be interested to see life in this area. Most rich Nigerians are oblivious to their surroundings and reciprocate the insouciance of their neighbours. I knew many wealthy Nigerians living in fabulous properties who had no idea who their neighbours were and cared even less. For them, this is an insider tale. But not the one they expect. Most Nigerians would be expecting me to be living with people from the top draw. Well, some are, but the majority are less well educated and went to lesser schools. This often shocked these people whenever they occasionally spoke to me! Half of the people living here are renting. Corporate tenants on assignment with megacorp.
To be fair, Lady Antonia Fraser, Harold Pinter’s wife, lived around the corner for many years, and as I will explain later, so did many famous people. Such people have mostly been polite and considerate. The exceptions will be covered!
Occasionally people can behave like utter bores. Michael Winner, the famous filmmaker, lived nearby. We passed each other quite frequently. One day he parked his vintage car and signalled for me to come over. I hesitated, but I knew who he was, so I came over. ‘Do you live here?’ This was boorish on so many levels. He had seen me so many times. Secondly, the code is that if asked if you live in the area by someone you do not know, you must deny it .. ’No, me. No, I am just passing-by.’ The only way I could say I did live here was to say firmly that I did not live on The Hill and walk into my flat, which was nearby. That irritating habit of some Brits ‘’’you don’t have to follow code with me…’. Really? Piss off.
Their assumption that ‘you are not really party to the system so lets not pretend.’ So let me state it clearly for the record: if I do not have to follow etiquette with you, let me tell you what I really think: Piss off!
Part of my motivation for this series is to give my fellow Brits a reflection of themselves as they are seen by Africans, not as they imagine themselves. By no means is this all negative, but even when it is positive, it is positive for aspects they have no idea of!
Britain is a complex society that is changing all the time. It often takes a crisis for the change to become visible. When I first moved to the area, it was full of elderly widows of a petulant child-hating kind. A new generation of young people who were moving in are going to have children, so we fought tooth and nail. No noise or children playing in the private garden. Really? You old witch! They bent a little and said Ok children are allowed in the garden but must not make a noise!
A private garden for children to play .. but only if they are silent! You witch! Laughing, running about, generally making some noise …that is what children do if they are well! Most of the widows have passed on. No more fights.
Talking of passing on. I went to Insead, Fontainebleau. It was a wonderful environment and I never experienced any prejudice while there. Any attempt to show prejudice was subverted silently by my colleagues. I still remember entering a class one day and finding an empty seat sat down next to a Spanish student. I have many upper-class Spanish friends, but this a..hole got up ostentatiously and sat somewhere else. Before I could take offence, a fellow student walked over and sat in his place. However, the British Alumni association was something else. At first, I took it for competitiveness. (I might have ruffled few feathers on my way to a distinction!) If an African alumni became a CEO then I expected they would behave differently. When an alumni became boss of Lloyds Bank they feted him. But when a African graduate became the sole Insead alumni CEO of a major multinational they left him out, ignored him, even though he was then based in England. A bunch of racists to the core. Some alumni had told me so, but I had previously discounted it. This contrasted greatly with the main organisation in Fontainebleau. Is there a lesson to be learned? I doubt it. I think it is a case like the Kensington widows, and following Tony Blair’s reputed comment about ‘old Africa hands’ – just wait for them to die out.
My son went to Prince Charles’ old school, Hill House. Many of the students had serious problems with his presence at that time. I myself had gone to a top English prep school but I suspect in those days I was expected to go ‘home’ and not be a direct competitor for jobs and positions. My son’s fellow students had a hard time accepting that he would be in direct competition. As one student told his teacher: ‘we might end up working for him when we grow up!’ My fellow Nigerians would never believe that posh English schoolboys could engage in gang violence. But then my fellow Nigerians have never read ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays.’
Privileged areas of Central London are subject to movements in the capital markets. When Hong Kong was about to be handed over there was a flurry of Chinese buyers. During The East Asian crash there was a flurry of Asian sellers. Then there was the oil boom in Nigeria. When we bought this property it was during a period of the oil boom. One day I overheard an estate agent trying to suggest to an English buyer that he might not be able to afford the flats in this block- she simply said ‘Nigerians are buying flats in this block ‘. At that time, Nigerians were famous/infamous for buying high-end properties sight unseen. Then the Nigerian economy crashed, and that era became ancient history.
I am rather fond of this area. My son has spent his whole life here. As he puts it – he was born here and has never lived anywhere else.