‘It’s really pleasant’
Photograph by Michael Caroe Anderson
Last time I was in Willesden Green I took my daughter to visit my mother. The sun was out. We wandered down Brondesbury Park towards the high road. The “French Market” was on, which is a slightly improbable market of French things sold in the concrete space between the pretty turreted remnants of Willesden Library (1894) and the brutal red brick beached cruise ship known as Willesden Green Library Centre (1989), a substantial local landmark that racks up nearly five hundred thousand visits a year. We walked in the sun down the urban street to the concrete space—to market. This wasn’t like walking a shady country lane in a quaint market town ending up in a perfectly preserved eighteenth-century square. It was not even like going to one of these Farmer’s Markets that have sprung up all over London at the crossroads where personal wealth meets a strong interest in artisanal cheeses.
But it was still very nice. Willesden French Market sells cheap bags. It sells CDs of old time jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. It sells umbrellas and artificial flowers. It sells ornaments and knick-knacks and doo dahs, which are not always obviously French in theme or nature. It sells water pistols. It sells French breads and pastries for not much more than you’d pay for the baked goods in Gregg’s down Kilburn High Road. It sells cheese, but of the decently priced and easily recognizable kind—brie, goat’s, blue—as if the market has traveled unchanged across the channel from some run-down urban suburb of Paris. Which it may have done for all I know.
The key thing about Willesden’s French Market is that it accentuates and celebrates this concrete space in front of Willesden Green Library Centre, which is at all times a meeting place, though never quite so much as it is on market day. Everybody’s just standing around, talking, buying or not buying cheese, as the mood takes them. It’s really pleasant. You could almost forget Willesden High Road was ten yards away. This matters. When you’re standing in the market you’re not going to work, you’re not going to school, you’re not waiting for a bus. You’re not heading for the tube or shopping for necessities. You’re not on the high road where all these activities take place. You’re just a little bit off it, hanging out, in an open air urban area, which is what these urban high streets have specifically evolved to stop people doing.
Everybody knows that if people hang around for any length of time in an urban area without purpose they are likely to become “anti-social.” And indeed there were four homeless drunks sitting on one of the library’s strange architectural protrusions, drinking Special Brew. Perhaps in a village they would be sitting under a tree, or have already been driven from the area by a farmer with a pitchfork. I do not claim to know what happens in villages. But here in Willesden they were sat on their ledge and the rest of us were congregating for no useful purpose in the unlovely concrete space, simply standing around in the sunshine, like some kind of community. From this vantage point we could look ahead to the turrets, or left to the Victorian police station (1865), or right to the half-ghostly façade of the Spotted Dog (1893).
We could have a minimal sense of continuity with what came before. Not so much as the people of Hampstead must have, to be sure, or the folk who live in pretty market towns all over the country, but here and there in Willesden the past lingers on. We’re glad that it does. Which is not to say that we are overly nostalgic about architecture (look at the library!) but we find it pleasant to remember that we have as much right to a local history as anyone, even if many of us arrived here only recently and from every corner of the globe.