Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Covent Garden Market

August 28th, 2010 · 11 Comments

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Video on YouTube

After we got off the Tube at Covent Garden, we were a little disorientd  so we asked a somewhat friendly-looking woman on the street for directions.  In an eominous harbinger of our afternoon to come, she responded- in a dead flat American Midwestern accent- “Oh, I have no idea, it’s my first time here, too.” We soon realized the market was located just down the street.  Within five minutes of entering, we found what the market was really about: a place for tourists and middle- and upper-middle-class locals to window shop and buy quasi-luxury items.

The first thing that surprised us about the market was the near total lack of ethnic food vendors. We actually only saw one food vendor, a fruit cart, despite the title Apple Market above the carts. Items for sale  included handbags, jewelry, soaps, and other window shopping items. All of these were conspicuously advertised as “handmade,” creating a sense of authenticity for shoppers. Several of the vendors also sold paintings of the more traditional parts of London;  items specifically for tourists. One vendor even had posters of American stars (i.e. Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe). These particular actresses are icons of higher class, which we felt reflected the classes that the market meant to attract. The area seemed to contain a lot of nouveaux rich items that would appeal to the middle- and upper-middle classes, as Fox suggests in Watching the English. The area seemed mostly designed for window shopping and watching free entertainment.

One of the entertainers, a melodramatic unicyclist, performed in front of St. Paul’s Church. There were two homeless men on the steps that most people seemed to be ignoring. The other historical area near the site was the Royal Opera House.  To add to the artistic atmosphere, flags and various paintings hung along the market’s rafters.

We were surprised to find that most of the people in the area were white considering the amount of diversity in London. The people also seemed religiously neutral, compared to others we’ve seen elsewhere in London—we did not see any religious indicators, such as headscarves or yamoulkas.

The buzzword for the afternoon was definitely “homogeneity.”  The market and its proprietors guarded the blandness of the place with extreme zeal. Ethnic restaurants (often chain restaurants) brandished flags with their countries of origin as if to make it obvious for tourists. A highlight of the unintentional comedy that this produced was a pub that hung a sign in the window saying: “Football colours are not permitted.”

The shops surrounding the market were equally lacking flavor.  Many of the retailers were large American companies, such as: Oakley, Build-a-Bear, and Disney.

Amidst all this complaining about Covent Garden, it should be mentioned that the area felt extremely safe.  We saw more young children in four hours today than we have seen in the fourty-eight hours we have been in London.  The area was very family-friendly and also seemed to be a popular date spot for couples in their 30s and older. Also, the market was not totally soulless, as we had two fairly amusing encounters.  First, we spotted a large group of men in rugby jerseys wearing obviously fake moustaches and Afro wigs.  We felt compelled to ask them what drove them to do this, and the answer was that there was a rugby final at Wembley much later in the day. They came to the market to get drunk (although they seemed pretty well-behaved and claimed that they were neutral in support). Second, one of us gave in to the entreaties of a very haggard street salesman (wearing a lanyard with a card that said “WORKING, NOT BEGGING.” The card was not as unnecessary as it sounds) and bought a magazine from him.  As he was clearly doing very poor business, we didn’t feel that bad chatting him up for ten minutes or so, a conversation dotted with some spectacular moments.  The most memorable line was “You’re from the States then? You have Christmas, we have Christmas.  But I have one big question: What the fuck is up with Thanksgiving? Seems like a bit of fraud to me.”

Tags: 2010 Dennis · 2010 Jesse · 2010 Mary · Markets

Covent Garden Market: America 2

August 22nd, 2009 · 1 Comment

Outisde the Apple Market

Outisde the Apple Market

Although it has only been two days, we were beginning to become a little skeptical of A.N. Wilson’s portrayal of a London overrun by American corporations and solely meant for tourism. All of the places that were not already tourist attractions were certainly un-American, and the cuisine was not only worldly but also a surprising amount of fusion food available (Indian/Japanese anyone?). However, after visiting the Covent Garden Market, we caught a glimpse of the England that was made for the tourist. The market is best described as a market for those who want to buy foreign things, but not too foreign. In the Jubilee Market, the shops almost entirely consisted of souvenir and novelty stalls.

A Keychain Shop

A Keychain Shop

People visiting were welcomed to buy everything from London t-shirts, to calendars of David Beckham, and even London-themed condoms (“Want to see Big Ben?”). For those who didn’t have the local currency, there were numerous exchange agents and even stores that accepted American dollars and Euros.DSCN2960

The Apple Market was located in a 12th century abbey where the local monks would grow and sell their vegetables. Keeping in the tradition, there were a variety of chain stores, t-shirt vendors and cafes (The one fruit stand was not even located in the market, but outside one of the entrances).

Of the two markets, Apple seemed to consist more of permanent establishments, however Apple Market’s aim was no different from Jubilee in its desire to attract foreigners, with a welcome sign in several different languages, albeit slightly higher quality.

The surrounding neighborhood also played towards the same theme of tourism, with only the most popular chain retailers lining the streets such as Gap, The Disney Store, Starbucks, H&M, and others. The local theaters were mostly playing shows that had previously or were still on Broadway. Across from the market was the St. Paul’s Church but it was unfortunately closed at the time we were there.

St. Paul's Church

St. Paul's Church

Slightly disillusioned by the cookie-cutter appeal of the Covent Garden area, we decided to walk back to the hotel. It took fifteen minutes of walking until the number of major chain retailers began to decrease and we began to see independent businesses (and pubs!).

The market clearly recognized that this was the type of London that tourists both expected and wanted to see. The shops were easily recognizable, the streets were clean, the vendor made sure that you knew that what you were buying was foreign, and everyone was white.

American Fare

American Fare

Tags: Markets · Paul · Rebecca · Sarah