Notting Hill before Hollywood

by maggi dawn

I don’t remember all that much about the movie Notting Hill (except it was the RomCom of the summer the year it came out) but I do remember two things. One was the length of the single shot following Hugh Grant all the way up Portobello Road – minutes long, I think. The other was that in the entire movie almost all the faces on the screen were white faces. Just like the real W11, then…

I’ve lived in a number of parts of London, but always BEFORE they were fashionable. At one time I lived in a very ramshackle house in Ladbroke Grove – cheek by jowl with the now very fashionable Notting Hill and the Portobello Road. I was working in a kind of rescue house for homeless and destitute people (again, this was before the very public face of homelessness hit the streets in the UK). Most of the people that passed through our doors had also had more than a passing acquaintance with drink, drugs and violence, and working there required a curious mixture of faith, and either courage (which I’m not very good at) or the capacity to focus so single-mindedly on the job in hand that you become entirely oblivious to other aspects of the situation you’re in (which I’m outstandingly good at). Somehow I got through those 3 years WITHOUT contracting hepatitis or anything worse from all the blood-baths I cleaned up.

The organization I worked for was highly idealistic, which I soon learned is an unrealistic way to approach homelessness and poverty. They (we) did a lot of excellent work, but there was a tendency to want to see the world saved right now, and not much acceptance of the idea that ‘the poor will always be with you’. But up at Portobello my main partners in ministry were a couple of Sally Army officers, who worked from a somewhat different perspective. They didn’t assess their ‘success’ according to how many lives had been saved or transformed. A glimmer of hope on the face of a hopeless man doesn’t seem like a lot. But it was the very picture of grace to these two Sally Saints. They took me to visit a few other Sal projects while I lived there, and I gained a more solid understanding of what ministry to the homeless and destitute was all about – not a quick fix, sometimes not even a ‘fix’ at all, but the ministry of grace to people whose lives would never be quite ‘normal’. God’s salvation doesn’t necessarily cash out in a steady and sober life and middle class values. The Sals gave me a better theology, and an understanding that grace isn’t necessarily about changing the exterior details; that kind of ministry has to be done with the attitude of mind that it might well take a lifetime and still nothing exterior will change very much. They also encouraged me to leave that line of work: they had a hunch that I had other stuff to do. They were right about that too. The organization I worked for left years ago. But I’d put money on it that the Sally Army is still be there, or somewhere close by, providing clothes, food, love and hope for people who have lost the thread of life.

Somehow the soup runs never make it into the movies. The current obsession with converting old warehouses and railway cottages into fashionable dwellings in our cities projects the same image as Notting Hill (the movie) – all cute little second hand bookshops and rooftop gardens. It would be easy enough, especially now I live in West Cambridge, to forget the underbelly. That’s one of the reasons I love reading Gordon’s blog. His story about Andy this week reminds me of where else I’ve been, and helps me keep my life – my ministry to the successful people, and my academic theological pursuits – in perspective.