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.