Friday, November 16, 2012

Covent Garden, London

Every day except Christmas

For some years in the 1980s and 1990s I crossed the piazza of Covent Garden every day on my way to and from my desk in the office of a publishing company. Now and then I paused to admire the main market building, the market house designed by Charles Fowler and built in 1828–30, still largely intact but with roofs (glass and slate supported on iron columns) added in the later 19th century. The rows of Tuscan columns and the corner pavilions with their lower storey picked out with banded rustication, defined the outside and are visible in my photograph of the east end of the market house.

By the time I began work in this part of London, the market was already beginning its second life as a tourist attraction, the original raison d'être of the place, the wholesale selling of fruit and vegetables, having been moved to a site at Vauxhall. But I'm old enough to remember the vegetable market at Covent Garden with its nocturnal life, its lippy porters, its pubs open in the mornings when this was unknown elsewhere in England, its surrounding labyrinth of lanes and alleys in which opera-goers heading for the "other" Covent Garden would occasionally get lost.

I was reminded of all this the other night by a chance online viewing of Lindsay Anderson's documentary Every Day Except Christmas (1957), which chronicles in black and white a day in the life of the market. It is all beautifully shot and composed, from the midnight loading of lorries in Kent, to the organised chaos of the arrival of trucks (apples from the Vale of Evesham, flowers from Lincolnshire, mushrooms from the southeast, and so on) in the crowded streets around the market; from the stallholders' careful arrangement of their stock to their moment of relaxation in a nearby café (this place also inhabited by nocturnal "characters" who seem to have sidled in from another, edgier, world); from the first sale to the removal of vegetables and fruit on precariously loaded barrows and packed vans.

Much of what I saw was familiar, from chance late-night crossings of the market years ago and, perhaps, from an earlier viewing of the film itself. But this is where memory starts to play tricks. I hold in my mind a memory of a documentary about the market set to the music of Beethoven's Pathétique sonata, structured around the piece's three movements (fast-slow-fast, mirroring the market's phases of frenetic activity punctuated by an interlude of calm). But there is no such music in Lindsay Anderson's film. Could there have been another documentary covering a day in the life of Covent Garden? Or have I confused Anderson's film with another, on a different subject, but using Beethoven's music? Or have I imagined the whole thing? Googling has not given me an answer. I continue to rack my brains.

Detail, corner pavilion, Covent Garden market, west end


Joe Treasure said...

I can’t help with the question, but I’m fascinated by the way memories can be constructed and distorted. Any of your suggestions seem possible.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Joe: Indeed they do. And the ways of memory are certainly fascinating. I'm now remembering that the Pathétique Sonata has a slow introduction before its first, fast movement gets going, and I'm imagining, or remembering, a place awakening into night-time, lights coming on, doors opening, a cat going about its business, as the nocturnal activity of the market begins.

Luke Honey said...

One of the lovely things about blogs, is discovering films and stuff you didn't previously know about. I've got to see this Lindsay Anderson film now. (Big fan of LA- was at school where IF.... was shot.)

You mentioned this "ghost" Covent Garden film before. I'm sure you did see it, and it exists- or existed. Was it on daytime television during the 1970's?

I can remember a similar short- dreamy, back-lit shots of the river Thames in the rain, fibre class cabin crusiers moored up at somewhere like Windsor or Runnymede, people mucking around on boats- all set to Erik Satie's Gymnopodie. This was the sort of film they used to show as a five or ten minute "filler" during the afternoon.

Doesn't the set-up seem similar? Short film on a British subject, set to classical music? I'm just wondering if both films were part of a commissioned series...just an idea? Mine would have been shown around 1976.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Luke: Thank you. Lindsay Anderson is one of the greats and cinematography in the Covent Garden documentary is very good.

The "ghost" film was, I'm sure, broadcast in the 1970s - mid-1970s I think (I didn't watch much television in the late-1970s), but I can't remember whether it was shown in the daytime or not. But your recollection of the Thames film does sound like something from the same stable.

It's interesting, isn't it, that the music plays an important part in these memories.

Luke Honey said...

I can just imagine your "ghost" film- grainy 16mm, slightly whimsical (like that strange egg factory sequence in "The London Nobody Knows"), faded colour...I'm sure it existed.

Was there a narrator, by the way? I'm also thinking that it was probably inspired by the imminent closure of the market - I think, from memory, around 1974?

Thank God the architecture survived (unlike Les Halles). I compare the redevelopment of Covent Garden with St Katherine's Dock- which, I think was done in the late 70's.

I believe these are the first examples of urban regeneration in post-war London - in the sense of old industrial buildings being re-fitted for use as restaurants, shops and art galleries. I seem to remember that this "movement" started in Boston. People complain about "gentrification", but I do think that the alternative (ie a six lane highway straight through Inigo Jones's church) would have been far worse.

Philip Wilkinson said...

I can't remember there being a narrator - the only sound I remember is the music. I remember it in black and white because I'd have seen on my mother's television, which was still B&W in those days. It was very likely linked to the closure of the market - yes in 1974.

This was indeed an early London example of regeneration/reuse of old industrial and commercial buildings. Boston was very influential - the Qunicy Market scheme was completed in 1976 to tie in the the bicentennial celebrations. The Musée d'Orsay was also quite early (I think the conversion started around 78/79). There had been smaller schemes (I think what is now Modern Art Oxford was much earlier), but this wasn't the kind of regeneration that transformed a whole area.

There are problems about gentrification, but, yes, better this than the Les Halles-type mess.

Kendra said...

Hitchcock's Frenzy?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Kendra: Frenzy is certainly set in Covent Garden. But the music is wrong and it's not a documentary. Some of its shots could have got into my memory though, and disguised themselves as something else. Who knows?

Auriel Ragmon said...

buildings fan's photostream Pro User
Just started to access this site even it is not as interesting as yours.

Jim of Olym
We sure don't have buildings as old and as interesting as yours,but we are trying to not knock our old ones down (some times)

Peter Ashley said...

Over in Unmitigated England we have a corrugated iron cinema showing Lindsay Anderson films on a continuous loop. Which doesn't help your quest. I was going to leap in with 'Frenzy' but Kendra got in first, but I do wonder if it was something in the ouevre of Humphrey Jennings?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: Thanks. Jennings is another possibility to explore.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Auriel: Thanks for your interest. I'll be posting more old buildings soon.

Hels said...

I wonder if the market could have remained as the wholesale market for fruit and vegetables, as well as having some cleaner, quieter spaces available for coffee shops, music.

This multi use was probably well known in earlier centuries. And the architecture wouldn't have had to have changed... just some of the floor space.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hels: I'm a great fan of mixed use but I think it would have been very difficult to make it work in this case. There was a big traffic management problem - lots of big trucks trying to negotiate narrow streets; there was also the space issue - the fruit and veg (and flower) market needed more space in which to operate, not less. So in this case, moving out made most sense, sad as it was to have to do this.