I didn’t know you but I miss you

I haven’t long to write – because soon I’m off to the station and then to the airport, to Inverness – visiting our projects up there – both the re-working of the castle and the new town of Tornagrain. Today, in the sparkling sunshine, I went for brunch with Maggie to the new ‘Balthazar’, recently opened in Covent Garden as I am sure you will know. I love Balthazar in NYC, and I’d been looking forward so much to a little patch of NYC in London. Will turned up, and a friend of his too. So far, so good.

Hmm. It didn’t have it. Not quite. Did it lack the New York air, the stylish panache of people who really know how to serve? Was it all a bit… fake?  Was it just because I’m off to Gatwick that I slightly felt as if I was at the airport already, in a giant, rather artificial eatery which had rather too many waiters who didn’t seem to know what they were doing?

And then Maggie and I stepped out in to Covent Garden and I realised how much I hate what’s happened to so much of London. You know, I’ve been trying to put my finger on what has unsettled me about the Maggie Thatcher funeral last week. It was when I looked at a photo of Churchill’s funeral in London some 50 years ago, and which has of course been rather on the mind of the commentari, that I realised what it was.

Here the cortege passes Lutyens’s extraordinary cenotaph, and I realised, staring at this photograph for rather a while, how much I loved the grimy blackness of old Whitehall, in a London that had, of course, only just seen the end of smogs and the clean air act. How white the cenotaph shines in comparison.

And here, from another newspaper, the funeral barge (I may have my facts wrong) passing down the Thames—the cranes all dipping their masts in respect. Much was made of this little detail in the papers. Would Thatcher have achieved that respect? To be honest, I don’t mind one way or the other – you can take it or leave it, as far as I’m concerned. What I was looking at was the empty skyline of London, which I once wrote about here, and the powerful dignity of a riverbank still lined with commerce and industry.

You can never turn the clock back; I realise.  And – believe me – I think I wouldn’t want to have lived in 1960s London, when being gay was a crime that could still put you in prison (just as a for instance).  I really am happy with the here and now.

But walking out in to the Covent Garden Market, I took a few photos, and I hope when you see what I’m contrasting them with in a little while, you’ll see what I mean.

Why does every bad cup of coffee in London have to be sold by Caffe Nero or some other ubiquitous chain?

It’s only when you look up that you can still see the London I love.

And so – and so on. I came home and dug out one of my favourite books, Clive Boursnell’s Covent Garden. As a young photographer arriving in London in the mid 60s, right around the time of that Churchillian funeral, Clive realised that Covent Garden market was a fragile thing whose days were passing. Over the subsequent years he took thousands of photographs of the market while it was still the centre of fruit, vegetable and flower sales in London.

I know that I’m susceptible to the nostalgia game – you’d probably expect that by now! But I’m nostalgic not for appearances, as so many people can be, as for use. I remember an old hardware shop in Dolgellau, in North Wales – that my friends Jane, Johnny and I used to know. It had been in continuous use as a hardware shop since it was built in the 19th century. Because of all its fixtures and fittings, the building had been listed – so that nothing could be changed or altered inside. But eventually Roberts Hardware went out of business, and it became a coffee shop or a Wicca centre or something equally grim. As far as I’m concerned, at that point, the building was dead, however much we preserve the cupboards.

When we look at these photos, I think we realise the difference between real, and fake, that troubled me at the very start of this blog. Of course I’m glad that the Covent Garden market buildings survived – in one of the most bitterly fought conservation battles of the 1970s.  But when their life and use and soul has been ripped out of them, sometimes I wonder if it’s worth the effort – if the buildings and the city become an empty husk, devoid of meaning?  And looking at the shopping centre that it’s become today – I really do mourn the old market all the more.

Covent Garden I didn’t know you, but I miss you.

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