Borough Market is one of the places I encourage American tourists to visit. Forget Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square, I tell them – south of the river is much more interesting. From Westminster Bridge walk eastward along the South Bank. In the foyer of the South Bank Centre, which dates from the 1951 Festival of Britain, you might, randomly, at odd hours of the day, hear a gospel choir or see local children doing Indian dance. Then there’s Tate Modern, housed in the old Bankside power station, and the Globe, a faithfully reconstructed Elizabethan theatre, where performances typically combine the celebration of cultural heritage with an exhilarating ethnic variety both on and off stage. Skirt Southwark Cathedral through narrow medieval lanes and you reach Borough Market.
People have bought and sold in the streets of Borough for at least 1000 years. Until the mid-nineteenth century London Bridge was the only way of crossing the Thames into the city except by boat, so it was the ideal place to capture passing trade. By Shakespeare’s time the neighbourhood was offering plays and bear-baiting and other lowbrow attractions that the puritan London council wouldn’t tolerate within the city walls.
By the twentieth century it had become a major wholesale fruit and vegetable market. The surge in supermarket chains in the 1970s put independent greengrocers out of business and the market’s future looked bleak. But in the 1990s there was a resurgence of interest in what people were beginning to call artisan food, London was increasingly open to global tastes and the market was reborn in its current form.
When Leni and I lived at the Elephant and Castle, 20 minutes away by foot, 10 minutes on the bus, I went regularly to a stall in the market for my favourite sourdough loaf. After her back surgery, Leni was in Guy’s Hospital for 8 days under the care of nurses from 3 continents, while they got her pain under control, and I’d cross Borough High Street every day for soups and other kinds of street food to tempt her with.
Through centuries of change there’s continuity in the spirit of the place. Four centuries after Shakespeare’s death, this is still a hub of entertainment and indulgence, a magnet for human life in all its diversity. Whatever its intended purpose, last weekend’s brutal attack, which has so far resulted in 7 deaths, was a rejection of all that.
With less than a week to go before a General Election, Britain’s politicians took a day off from campaigning. Donald Trump, in contrast, turned the attack into a showcase for his own ignorance. First he made it an argument, bizarrely, against gun control. Rob terrorists of automatic weapons, he pointed out, and they’ll use vehicles and knives to kill people.
Then he criticised Sadiq Kahn for discouraging panic. Trump has a thing about Kahn. Apparently he can’t get his head round the fact that London has elected a Muslim mayor. Unable to see past Kahn’s religion and race, he doesn’t understand that he is essentially a Londoner. The fifth of eight children, his father a bus driver, his mother a seamstress, Kahn grew up in a council house in our own South London constituency of Tooting, and entered politics after getting a degree in law. His successor as Tooting’s MP, the wonderful Dr Rosena Allin-Kahn, for whom I’ve been out knocking on doors, is also Muslim and also a Tooting native, with a mother from Poland and a father from Pakistan.
Both Kahn and Allin-Kahn, incidentally, are passionate Remainers. While they argue the benefits of migration and the importance of progressive social policies, their own lives powerfully represent these things. Together with London’s three Bangladesh-born MPs (whom I've written about before) and all the immigrants and children of immigrants who live and work peacefully in London, including those who drive ambulances, work in Guy's Hospital and serve in the Metropolitan Police Force, they are, whatever Trump imagines, not a problem but valued contributors to the life of this dynamic city.