Different memories for different people

Names are so evocative, but evocative in different ways for different people. Catherine Slessor, former editor of The Architectural Review, said on Twitter recently ‘When I hear the phrase ‘new Covent Garden’ I reach for my revolver. Suspect I’m not alone.’ She was referring to a story in London’s Evening Standard about the proposals for Coal Drops Yard, part of the Argent development at King’s Cross. It described the new development, of a piazza surrounded by old buildings converted to retail, as being like a new Covent Garden.

square full of people

Actually so far Argent has scarcely put a foot wrong, so let’s hope that this will be appealing and not the rather cutesy place that Catherine was undoubtedly alluding to. But when I hear the words ‘new Covent Garden’ I get an entirely different picture from the one that the words doubtless conjure for Catherine.

Because I think (note the capitals) of New Covent Garden, the area of Vauxhall that the old Covent Garden market moved to, and where my father’s fruit-importing business transferred to for a while. It is a pretty soulless place, soon to be redeveloped again and shrunk, the funding coming from the land sales for the Nine Elms development.

But this means that I also remember the old Covent Garden where my father’s office was until forced to move in the mid 1970s. It was on the second floor (or maybe the first) of a building in Long Acre, the main thoroughfare. it was a surprisingly large space for somewhere occupied only by two or three people (in my teens my mother worked there as well). There was a restaurant on the ground floor, with its unwrapped bread always left on the dirty floor so that my father refused to eat there. The staircase was dim, there was a lavatory on the bend of the statirs and the whole place employed a cleaner who sloshed a lot of water around but never disturbed the dust.

When my parents went on holiday I sometimes went in and manned the phones which rarely rang, so i read a lot. I remember picking up a biography of England’s first female doctor Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (my father was an inveterate acquirer of books) and discovering that she had grown up in Long Acre, and I could see her former home from the office window.

So despite the  tacky, tourist-focused commercialism, I am rather fond of the old Covent Garden and the memory it evokes. We don’t just live amongst bricks and mortar but among memories and it is worth remembering that these are different for everybody and that places, and words, have multiple meanings.

Ruth Slavid

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