Meet Phil Bickley, owner of Tonic, the classic menswear shop on Portobello Road. Phil sat down with Urban Dandy just after his shop’s twentieth birthday as retail opened up again. He explained how Tonic started and became a Portobello mainstay, what inspires the shop, the impact of Covid on retail, and how some major currents in British history and culture have shaped his personal story…
What is Tonic about?
Tonic is about quality, understated clothing for quality, understated people. It is socially and environmentally responsible, anti-mass production, clothes with value, established names and up and coming new brands.
What explains your longevity?
We were 20 years old in November. We offer classic labels and designs and value for money.
Three months closed in the first lockdown, then another month, and on – how do you cope?
Now that’s a question!
Two days before lockdown we photographed every item in the shop, bit rough and ready. Then in the first one to two weeks of lockdown, I was editing and adding stock then I started to put down my thoughts on retail and Tonic and its place in the community.
I sent these thoughts out in the next few weeks as emails to my customer database and through social media. The response from customers was emotional, it touched me the response we received, and the support. It helped me understand how much the shop means to our customers…retail is much more than the transaction.
Tonic isn’t just about selling stuff, it is a place, an attitude, a place people like to come and hang out, talk about the world, society, community, politics, music, football and sometimes clothes. Now and again they like to buy….
I started to come in once, then twice a week, sending out online orders and delivering orders that were close enough by hand. It was good to see people. The neighbourhood was very quiet, people appreciated me delivering by hand, sometimes I’d take two sizes of something that had been ordered so the customer could try both and decide which was better, this went down well.
We were able to access some of the government support. I’m not a fan of any Tory government, never will be, but their initial response on the financial side was good, it was decisive, considered and timely. Everything else though has been terrible!
And, in my own experience, I know there’s many with not such a good experience in lockdown.
What is the future of fashion retail and the high street?
Retail will never be the same again. The pandemic has accelerated what was already happening, people shopping from home and high streets dying. For retail businesses to survive, in my opinion, they need to be open and honest. Look after people, be nice. Sell good quality at honest prices, be true to a vision, whatever that might be.
How did you end up down here, establishing yourself on Portobello?
In 1989 I went to Hillsborough, going to footy and clothing was my thing in my later teens, I was in the Leppings Lane end with a group of friends, unfortunately, three of them didn’t make it home. At 18 years old it was tough to deal with something like that. In the 80s there wasn’t much support in how to deal with something like that. Later that year I decided to leave, maybe it was running away, I’m not really sure to be honest, I think you were expected to deal with things differently then.
Anyway, I was working in the Post Room of the Girobank in Bootle, Liverpool, and they gave me the opportunity to go and work in the London office as junior junior office assistant. It was my ticket to a new life. I moved to London not knowing anyone but gradually found my feet, found friends, worked in Greece, found rave culture, which was probably the natural next step to an ex-football going fashion lover…
Then after working in clothes shops in Soho I decided to go back into education, I managed to talk my way in to doing a fashion degree at London College of Fashion. Then I went on to work for Paul Smith in London and Nottingham. Then I had a buying role at The Moss Brothers Group, and from there I went on to roles buying for the Hugo Boss UK stores, then developing own-label ranges for the Cecil Gee stores. That is where I came up with the concept of Tonic. 20 years later, here I am.
With you being so directly affected by the atrocity at Hillsborough, there’s an obvious parallel with the Grenfell atrocity. What are your thoughts on how the community can interact with the ongoing injustice?
I grew up in Liverpool and my dad was a fireman. There would be fires in flats all the time and they were put out, they didn’t spread. Estates were built in conjunction with the fire brigade. What happened at Grenfell Tower was so different from this and it would be a disgrace if the families are made to wait as long as the Hillsborough families did for justice.
I see the similarities, the fact that minorities and marginalised communities are demonised, the misdirection from the media. With Hillsborough, it was The Sun demonising people from Liverpool, but the reality was that there were fans from all sorts of places at Hillsborough that day.
I just really hope they don’t have to wait so long but I’m concerned for them as it seems the same tactics of delay and demonisation are being used against the Grenfell families and local community.
We just received the above image from a former Lancaster West resident. The image shows an official RBKC notice announcing that the council has designated 14th June, the anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, as the date for the first of a series of fire alarm tests in one of its properties.
Four years on from the horrors of Grenfell, with no justice, widespread trauma and a PR-heavy change programme at the local council which has been ignored by the national media but exposed as a sham on this blog and elsewhere, RBKC is still finding new ways to be incompetent and insensitive.
The Housing Stock is the 9,000 residential properties owned by Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC).
And the two Double-Barrelleds are Nicholas Paget-Brown and Rock Feilding-Mellen, former leaders of RBKC and key players in North Kensington’s recent history.
Until March 2018, RBKC managed its 9,000-strong housing stock through an arms-length subsidiary company misleadingly named Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) – read more about KCTMO here.
RBKC’s leaders had ultimate responsibility for KCTMO including scrutinising the company to ensure it met its duty of care to residents. Following the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017, RBKC folded KCTMO (and its 3,500 outstanding repair jobs) back into the council and increased the role of another council subsidiary company, Repairs Direct. RBKC gave Lancaster West, the site of Grenfell Tower, a separate estate management organisation, W11, although it remains in the gift of the council.
KCTMO claimed its number one aim was “Keeping our customers and residents centre stage.” Despite RBKC’s positivespin about its performance, KCTMO failed spectacularly.
Those with lived experience of KCTMO, including me, know it behaved like a “mini mafia who pretend to be a proper functioning organisation,” going after “any residents who have the temerity to stand up to them.” RBKC’s leadership chose not to take action to improve the TMO’s approach to residents.
In 2010 the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition took power with a zest for austerity that was taken up by RBKC. Since that election, life expectancy in Golborne ward, North Kensington, has dropped six years, one of manystatistics to lay bare the inequality of Kensington.
RBKC and KCTMO used banal bureaucracy to victimise residents who opposed their policies in the years before the fire. At the head of this was Tory council leader, Nicholas Paget-Brown.
Paget-Brown was a career politician, holding various roles in the Conservative party including local councillor from 1986 until 2018 and RBKC leader from 2013 until 2017.
His stated ambitions for North Kensington were modest: “I would like all residents to be proud of living in Kensington & Chelsea and I want to contribute towards the regeneration of parts of the Borough where there is still a need to ensure that people have opportunities that will give them the best start in life.” This, alongside platitudes about improving parks, gardens, and museums, indicated Paget-Brown’s comfortable position as leader of RBKC. His blog, his local newspaper columns, and his utterances in conversation could be reduced to one sentence: ‘Everything’s alright, you can trust the Tories.’
The most unequal borough in Britain? Paget-Brown was not a man intent on change.
On Paget-Brown’s watch, impoverishment accelerated, and North Kensington’s public assets were directly targeted. The figurehead of the injustice, Paget-Brown’s brand of politics was aggressive, but his personality less so. Entitled, arrogant but mild-mannered. He didn’t need to display malevolence; he had power. Everybody we spoke to who met Paget-Brown reported that he was very keen on agreeing with what they said, less keen on doing anything about it.
Paget-Brown was also Managing Director of Pelham Consulting. The company’s website features a looming photo of RBKC’s erstwhile leader and explains: “Pelham Consulting was established in 2001 to provide policy research and support to senior managers in business and public services. Managing Director, Nick Paget-Brown is a graduate in politics, has stood as a Parliamentary candidate, and until 2017, was Leader of a major London Borough having served as a Councillor since 1986.”
“Until 2017, was Leader of a major London Borough…”
What happened in 2017, Nick?
In 2017, RBKC suffered what PR Week charmingly termed a “reputational crisis” after 72 of its tenants on an estate in managed decline were killed in a fire that was not just entirely preventable, but that tenants had repeatedly warned was possible.
RBKC’s first post-fire full council meeting turned to farce when Paget-Brown initially tried and failed to ban journalists from attending before abandoning proceedings, claiming he didn’t want to “prejudice” the public inquiry.
Paget-Brown stayed in his lucrative position as leader until he was told to resign by then Home Secretary Sajid Javid, with the “reputational crisis” undermining Prime Minister Theresa May.
Javid told Paget-Brown he must accept his “share of responsibility for perceived failings.” The word perceived left some leeway: perhaps RBKC’s leadership wasn’t really to blame. They certainly weren’t admitting guilt. The public relations response had begun.
Paget-Brown initially deflected blame by claiming that Grenfell Tower residents had not wanted the “disruption” of fire safety equipment installation.
Within two months of the fire, Paget-Brown had launched a new company, NPB Consulting, which, according to PR Week, is “a consultancy service for organisations who wish to work with local authorities.”
As with his other company, Pelham, Paget-Brown’s name does not appear on NPB Consulting’s Companies House record.
On the first anniversary of the fire, Paget-Brown, by then unconcerned about ‘prejudicing’ the inquiry, told the London Review of Books (LRB) that Grenfell Tower’s cladding had “actually been installed all over the country…the TMO was told it met building regulation standards.”
Since 2017 the former council leader has been active on Twitter and Facebook, sharing photos of his travels and some hateful views on Jeremy Corbyn, but making no reference to North Kensington. His social media updates are a show of how carefree his life continued to be.
Paget-Brown is an individual lacking in self-awareness. Setting up a company so soon after the atrocity, positioning himself as a middleman between private interests and councils, and giving one interview, for the contemptible LRB essay, indicates somebody not in the habit of taking responsibility.
Perhaps Sir Martin Moore-Bick, Chairman of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, did the former RBKC leader a huge favour by creating a gap of years before any blame can be decisively apportioned for the atrocity. The precedent of GrahamMackrell and the Hillsborough disaster shows that the passage of time and expensive lawyers can provide a way out for those determined not to honestly admit their role.
In the meantime, Paget-Brown appears to bob along as he did as council leader: untransparent business dealings and indifference about the impact of inequality and injustice of North Kensington.
Rock Feilding-Mellen was RBKC’s deputy leader and cabinet member for Housing, Property and Regeneration. The latter role means he is possibly even more indebted to Moore-Bick for the structuring of an Inquiry designed to establish what happened, but not to apportion blame.
Feilding-Mellen is the son of Amanda Feilding, a drug reform campaigner, also known as the Countess of Wenyss and March, also known as Lady Neidpath. Among the properties owned by the family is Stanway House in Gloucestershire, which they promote as “an enclave of very English and almost magical harmony”.
The family are distant royals, their lineage tracing back to Charles II. There is much more on Feilding-Mellen’s heritage in the LRB Grenfell essay.
Feilding-Mellen initially became a councillor in 2006, but lost his St Charles (North Kensington) seat in the 2010 elections. His disappointment was short-lived as five months later he was gifted the safe Tory seat of Holland in a by-election.
It took only six months for the RBKC Conservatives (including current leader, Elizabeth Campbell) to fast-track Feilding-Mellen to the role of Cabinet Member for Civil Society, and only another two years to promote him again. He became, at the age of 34 and with no obvious expertise or qualification for either position, Deputy Leader of the council and Cabinet Member for Housing, Property and Regeneration.
Feilding-Mellen was also a director of various small, possibly shell, seemingly unsuccessful companies including the sardonically named Socially Conscious Capital Ltd which deals in “strategic land promotion projects,” Vilnius Investment Management Ltd and UAB May Fair Investments (registered in Lithuania).
Feilding-Mellen was the driving force behind RBKC’s drive to change the character of North Kensington against the wishes of the local population. He stated that he wanted to “wean people off” the idea of being able to live in social housing in the borough. This was the era of Cameron and Osborne’s austerity and Boris Johnson’s mayoralty, another administration undermining Londoners’ housing security.
Attacking communities’ basic needs for safety, shelter, and warmth was the most direct way for the council to achieve its goals. Under the banner of ‘regeneration,’ Feilding-Mellen first tried to move large numbers of social housing residents out of London altogether; when that produced limited results, the council simply cut its housing waiting list in half and employed a decant policy which removed the guaranteed right of return to their neighbourhoods for residents forced out during ‘regeneration’ projects.
Despite Feilding-Mellen’s RBKC housing strategy causing misery for those under threat of having to leave North Kensington and accelerating the managed decline or ‘regeneration’ of the area’s estates, the LRB article gives the policies a more positive spin, with Councillor Catherine Faulks quoted as saying the deputy leader was trying to create new housing for ‘young doctors, young professionals, [with] nowhere for them to live…that was one of his aspirations, to be able to provide housing for this group of young professional people.’
Feilding-Mellen sought to change the demography and culture of North Kensington. This would boost property prices (including his own) and break up the working-class social housing dominance over the borough’s northern, Labour-supporting wards.
The deputy leader was also the head of a committee that handed North Kensington’s public library over to a private school called Notting Hill Preparatory, in a deal that offered favourable terms over 25 years including the school being able to skip paying £365,000 rent for the first year. Feilding-Mellen was the only RBKC councillor to be consulted on the deal, and the decision to turn the library into a private school was approved by RBKC solely on his recommendation.
His own children were on the waiting list for places at Notting Hill Prep.
Feilding-Mellen had previously been involved in the decision to lease another North Kensington public asset, the Isaac Newton Centre, to another private prep school, Chepstow House. The councillor’s children were also on that waiting list.
Chepstow House Prep is on Lancaster Road, opposite the library, around the corner from Ladbroke Grove tube station. Further east along Lancaster Road, just before Portobello Road, was the Parkside Clinic for children’s counselling. The NHS sold Parkside in 2019 for £4.38 million to Rocket Productions Lab Ltd which is building a private pre-prep school called Grand West.
The leasing of the library to Notting Hill Prep was reversed following the Grenfell Tower fire, but the private school was still able to obtain public land just around the corner, by renting the upstairs of Ladbroke Grove Pret a Manger. The building was leased to Pret by RBKC, having previously been the Citizens’ Advice Bureau and Westway Information Centre.
This tiny, impoverished, polluted area of North Ken will soon host three preparatory schools, which at around £6,000 a term, most local people cannot afford.
Rock Feilding-Mellen oversaw and signed off on the 2016 refurbishment of Grenfell Tower.
Documents seen by The Times showed Feilding-Mellen, in June and July 2014, allegedly pressuring consultants Artelia UK to reduce costs. An “urgent nudge email” from KCTMO to Artelia stated: “We need good costs for Cllr Feilding-Mellen and the planner”.
Feilding-Mellen sat silently alongside Paget-Brown as the RBKC leader abandoned the post-fire council meeting. Like Paget-Brown, he resigned from his leadership roles and disappeared from active political life in Kensington but retained the passive income of his councillor’s salary until the May 2018 local elections.
Within months of the fire, Feilding-Mellen was active on business networking websites, posting his new address in Chelsea Embankment and selling his North Kensington house, opposite the Lancaster West and Silchester estates, two of his targets for ‘regeneration’, for £1,000,000.
Amanda Feilding appeared undeterred by her son’s shocking exit from political life. Vice magazine showcased her pro-drugs health campaigning in July 2017, without mention of Grenfell Tower, and she gave further interviews and talks on the health benefits of psychedelics throughout 2017.
In an interlude from the two double-barrelleds we journey back to 1997 and something that didn’t actually happen…
“I edge along Ladbroke Grove…and I keep seeing them; hunched on doorsteps with their tabloids and their tea, smoking their Raffles or Coliseums as they heft rolls of seagrass matting and lengths of hardwood flooring in and out of the dusty old houses. The builders. You see? Everyone’s doing it. It’s like you can look along the road, through the leafy trees toward Holland Park, and see the fireball of cash come flaming down the hill, burning out all the tolers: the Kaffirs, the old people, the welfare families. They’ve had it around here. Finished.”[i]
The quote is from Steven Stelfox, homicidal, sociopathic hero of the novel Kill Your Friends by John Niven. Murderously ambitious Stelfox represents the influx of money into North Kensington; no love, no empathy, the local community at best a colourful backdrop to his life, perhaps a boost to property prices.
Stelfox is a grotesque fictional character, but he is recognisable. In the years leading up to 2017, the avarice of thousands of Stelfoxes was attended to by RBKC’s leadership and paid for by the denial of dignified living conditions to poorer communities in North Kensington. RBKC became the political representative of the Steven Stelfox worldview: the destruction of the communal and the elevation of the individual.
King’s Road in Chelsea is like Monaco. Golborne Road is like King’s Road. At weekends, the streets around Holland Park are populated by Filipino cleaners and elderly white people strolling along with their copy of The Times.
Many of the properties around Holland Park are owned by oligarchs. A local estate agent told me that he sold a flat there for £10,000,000 this year. In the same postcode, W11, Lancaster West residents still don’t have a reliable supply of hot water. Last month the Grenfell Inquiry heard that water insecurity was used as a tool for bullying and marginalising Grenfell Tower tenants who raised concerns.
Nicholas Paget-Brown and Rock Feilding-Mellen were the senior administrators of this social bisection, carrying out their roles with extreme class and ideological bias. The KCTMO staff worked in the parameters of the worldview of old money with its brutal educational and family systems. North Kensington was flooded with Steven Stelfoxes and the rest of us were expected to settle for scraps. In the aftermath of the fire, these mentalities have remained largely intact on all sides.
Yet RBKC has a motto, Quam bonum in Unum habitare, ‘How good it is to dwell in unity.’ Their PR approach began long before 2017.
Demography and Power
The borough’s population is the smallest in London, around 160,000. 71% were recorded as White in the last census. Black populations of 2% and 5.4% were recorded in Brompton & Hans Town and Holland Wards, represented by Nicholas Paget-Brown and Rock Feilding-Mellen. In contrast, Golborne Ward in the north recorded 23.8% Black residents.
Life expectancy for a Moroccan male in Golborne is almost 30 years lower than for a white male living near Harrods, South Kensington, the wealthiest part of the UK.
There are five northern RBKC council wards, with 13 councillors, none representing the Conservative party. But the borough has 36 Conservative councillors, and they impose their will, without a mandate, on North Kensington. In this elective dictatorship, it is impossible for other parties to alter the power imbalance, they can only work to minimise the damage.
Culturally, ideologically, politically and financially, there was nothing in play that would have pushed Paget-Brown and Feilding-Mellen to do anything other than oppress and impoverish North Kensington’s communities. It was a question of how, not if.
Their belief in the normality, even virtue, of inequality was the point of departure of the two politicians responsible for council policy, scrutinising their TMO and the decisions that led to the Grenfell Tower atrocity. From that starting point, they still had many opportunities to change course. They chose not to, and we are haunted by the consequences every day. Are they?
There has been no fundamental change in the power balance in Kensington since 2017. The north of the borough will remain stuck in trauma unless it addresses this problem head-on.
Until then, the social fabric of North Kensington is as vulnerable as ever. Another Paget-Brown or Feilding-Mellen in a different guise could impose similar plans. Perhaps another double-barreled politician already has, with better social skills, a more conciliatory tone, a man who can appear genuine…smiling like a friend, repeating the word ‘change’ like a mantra, while working to ensure no real change whatsoever…
by Tom Charles @tomhcharles
[i] John Niven, Kill Your Friends, pp.101-102, Vintage Books, 2008
The word propaganda is rarely used by politicians, who prefer to use ciphers like public relations, communications strategy and messaging. Propaganda is reserved for foreign enemies like Nazi Germany or Iran. Like the word imperial, the negative connotation means it is avoided. And like imperialism, it goes on every day, it has a home here in London and Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC) is fully committed to it.
The propaganda we discuss below is generated by RBKC. It is not an abstraction to be debated by intellectuals, but a real problem destroying people’s life chances across the borough. For RBKC, propaganda is not just a way to put the best possible spin on a policy, it is their policy.
Back in August we wrote about Lancaster West estate, site of Grenfell Tower, which has been undergoing refurbishment since 2018 when RBKC stated that the estate would be transformed into “a model for social housing in the 21st century” through an ambitious, resident-led approach.Continue reading →
British society has developed in ways that have elongated adolescence. Once a phase lasting a few years, it now stretches from the onset of puberty well into a person’s 20s. During the early years of adolescence, many parents opt to let go, to encourage ‘independence’ or because their child seems to have more fun with their peers. But adolescence is no time to relinquish adult-child bonds, it is a time for adults to claim their position as the key players in their children’s transition to adulthood.
Role of Adults in Adolescence
Our children begin life 100% reliant on us, gradually becoming more independent, before experiencing a dramatic lurch forwards in adolescence. The adolescent appears to want to separate from the adult, and this signal is often mis-read by parents who respond by letting go altogether. While they need to separate at times, they also need a safe home base of attachment to return to. In adolescence, our children are not just learning independence; they also need the qualities of adaptability and integration. These three qualities, detailed below, are nature’s demand of them, the ultimate goal being maturation, the basis for happy, healthy adulthood. To succeed in this challenge, adolescents need parenting figures as much as they did during their infancy.
To become independent, adolescents need to push away from their adult attachment figures. But to be able to individuate with confidence, they also need the adult to act as a safety net, unthreatened by their child’s engagements with the world. The parent’s unconditional positive regard– acceptance and support that does not depend on approval of behaviour – is what a child needs to become independent. A child without this will lack the confidence to go forth into the world and will remain preoccupied with his primary need, attachment.
Strong adult attachment is a lightning rod when upsetting events inevitably happen. To develop the metaphor, while a strong parent cannot prevent the lightning strikes of painful events, a secure attachment grounds the electricity safely, preventing explosions and fires that are inevitable when emotional pain goes unrecognised and a child feels alone or unsafe in the world.
A secure attachment enables an important life lesson to be learned: painful things happen but we are safe in this world, accepted and treasured. From here, the adolescent learns that she can adapt to circumstances and embrace life with the confidence that comes from not being alone.
To develop depth and perspective, adolescents must absorb and integrate the many conflicting signals they are bombarded with. Children experience one emotion at a time, mature people can handle multiple. Adolescence is the time that this transition should occur. As with developing the body’s muscle tone, intellectual and emotional development requires contrast and conflict, push and pull; the brain learns problem-solving by considering different solutions. To develop the muscles required for independence, adaptability and integration, the adolescent needs some help…
New Role, Same Power
When an adolescent sees that the changes they are manifesting do not threaten her adult attachment, she makes an executive decision: changing the adult role from Parent to Advisor. This new role sees the adult become the adolescent’s mentor and confidant, a guru who can deftly enable the adolescent to fill the internal void that appears so dramatically in adolescence. In Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s stellar online course, Making Sense of Adolescence, the developmental psychologist repeatedly states the importance of providing adolescents with writing material. This facilitates and encourages the necessary phase of narcissism. By writing, they explore and express what is emerging; in a space just for them. Into this space, they gradually emerge as vibrant individuals.
The Advisor’s job description also includes enabling the adolescent to rest; to allow space for their tender emotions to emerge; to skilfully tease out of the adolescent what is bubbling up inside. Rather than pushing back when the adolescent begins to exert themselves (often crudely and rudely) the adult shows strength, the self-assuredness of an individual able to hold and govern space for someone they love.
The most basic human need is for attachment. If the adult does not proactively make themselves available, the adolescent finds attachment elsewhere. They attach to peers or online communities where none of the nurturing actions mentioned above are available. An adolescent abandoned to the peer group or the internet will not fulfil nature’s plan for adolescence: maturity.
What is unhealthy – peer attachment – can appear to be healthy. The peer-attached adolescent can present as confident and strong; you do not see them struggle with overwhelming emotions because they have been suppressed. In contrast, the adult-attached adolescent is often a mess. Less preoccupied with maintaining their cool, their emotions are on display, along with their awkwardness and angst. Awkward teens can become successful adults, but many parents intervene and sabotage this route to maturity, believing their children are happier and more independent with their friends or online.
This entirely modern phenomenon of peer-orientation is encouraged in a culture that pushes children and adults apart. Adults often work long hours in high stress or precarious jobs; meanwhile, adolescents have an instant connection to each other using technology. The culture has been largely stripped of its traditional reverence for the wisdom of elders, and adults in popular culture are generally figures of mockery. Developmentally, this all contributes to the disaster of people remaining trapped in adolescence, unable to emerge fully as individuals.
The alternative to peer orientation and arrested development is attachment parenting. Secure attachments to safe adults help in obvious and subtle ways, from decreasing the chances of bullying (perpetration or victimhood) and sexual promiscuity to providing a basis for a young adult to emerge and fulfill their potential in a turbulent world.
The power needed for successful adolescence lies with us, we just need to grasp it.