I found three photographs of Portobello Road taken on a saturday in about 1959, by Norman McCaskill, showing my mother’s café in the background. She’d called it The Yellow Door but it was known as Ann’s.

The doorway to the left is the W. A. James bicycle shop, where I spent hours (I was 7-ish). Bill James also let me sit in his green Morris van and pretend to drive. He had red-blond & white curly hair and had been gassed in WW1. He used to sing “She was a beautiful dicky bird, Tweet-tweet-tweet she went,” while he plunged semi-inflated inner tubes into a basin of water, looking for punctures. Then he’d go next door for a cup of splosh or a cup of cha (both tea). A very nice man, he lived in a flat around the corner in the Golborne Road.

Inside the café I recognise, behind the newspaper-hat woman, the back side of the oilcloth curtains. They depicted in 1950s style a colourful scene with banana trees and bunches of purple grapes. One day there was a thunderstorm; after it was over the street and the cars were covered in a layer of fine sand that was supposed to have been scooped up in the Sahara.

The district nurses who visited the RC convent down the road used to be brought into the cafe by their superiors because it was a convenient place to take an oral exam, and my mother said she always planted them by the windows to point out to prospective customers that the place was clean enough for nurses. There were convent buildings on both sides of Portobello Road, starting about where it bends. The one on the café side was a Victorian poor house, The Little Sisters of the Poor, where indigent homeless old people went to die; hence the need for the district nurses. I think the one opposite just housed nuns. I don’t know why there were so many Roman-Catholic Victorian buildings in the neighbourhood. There’s a convent in Ladbroke Grove, some big buildings at St Charles’s Hospital and more.

I have a vivid memory of walking past the 1959 ‘Win With Mosley’ slogans painted in white all the way along the convent walls. Fascist symbols too, it was there for years. I didn’t know what on earth it meant and no one would tell me. 

In 1963, my mother sold the café to a man who turned it into a greasy spoon, with pinball machines. He probably made a good deal more than my mother. Later the building’s landlord took out the storefront windows and turned the ground-floor into a flat, with more brickwork and residential windows. That’s how it appears nowadays.

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