Last time I was in Willesden Green I took my daughter to visit my mother. The sun was out. We wandered down Brondesbury Park toward 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 and roll. It sells umbrellas and artificial flowers. It sells ornaments and knickknacks and doodahs, 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, 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 from doing.
Everybody knows that if people hang around for any length of time in an urban area without purpose they are likely to become “antisocial.” 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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.