Utopian ideals: the Market community and a better world

Categories: Reflections and opinions

In this series, Jane Levi, writer and visiting research fellow at King’s College London, explores the many ways in which the place, people and values of Borough Market represent the concept of Utopia. Here she explains how the past few weeks, however painful, have seen the flourishing of something utopian here at the Market

“We all stand together... We promote hope not hate... We want to make London and the world a better place for all.”

You’d be hard pressed to find a more life-affirming, utopian sentiment than these words. What makes them all the more remarkable is that they come from a spontaneous message of support sent by the pupils of Highshore Special Educational Needs School to their friends at Borough Market last week. These young pupils, many of whom have severe autism, know the Market well; it hosts their school sales and other events. The children’s desire to communicate their feelings in the aftermath of the horrible events of 3rd June reflects the ongoing friendship that has been built between their school and the Market. While our feelings are most often publicly expressed in a crisis, this response shows that community and fellow-feeling develops and grows through every small interaction and special moment throughout the year.

They were not the only ones with an instinctive understanding of the value of reaching out to the place and people they have come to know and love. Sydney Fish Market sent supportive greetings from the other side of the world, and publicised the Borough Market trader support fund through its own newsletters. This fund, set up to offer support to individuals and businesses in and around the Market that suffered financially in the weeks following the atrocities had a target of £50,000 and had, at time of writing, raised almost double that amount, with contributions large and small pouring in from across the country and across the world.

Extending support
Others donated through the Red Cross UK solidarity fund, set up to help victims of the recent terror attacks in Manchester and London, and the Market’s people threw their support behind this campaign to help communities beyond their own. The Turkish Deli donated 50 per cent of its coffee sales to the fund while many other stalls had collection tins. Paul Wheeler extended his own stall’s collection to also cover the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, the devastating news of which was unfolding just as the Market itself re-opened. Others extended their support (fittingly enough) through the symbolic use of food.  Nick and Nadia of Gourmet Goat created a version of koliva, the Eastern Orthodox memorial food, for visitors to taste in return for a donation to the fund.

Behind the scenes, the Market’s traders had been working day and night to get the market ready to re-open on 14th June, fed by Fish! Restaurant who kept the traders’ spirits and energies going with free fish and chips, and helped by local builders pitching in to get everything in more than perfect order for the re-opening.  The extraordinary display of fruit, flowers and vegetables around the market entrance was one of the more spectacularly creative expressions of the love and solidarity in the community of this special place.

Inspiring children
While it’s been an important time for focusing on the internal and local communities of the Market, Borough continued to reach its helping hand far beyond its own site. The day after it re-opened on 14th June, Jenny Chandler was hard at work on behalf of Borough Market at the School Food Matters summer picnic in the beautiful College Gardens at Westminster Abbey, inspiring hundreds of delighted children with her spiraliser, fresh Market produce and Brindisa olive oil. Rarely have so many ultra-creative salads been made, tasted and enjoyed by so many young people!

This might seem a strange time to talk about utopia. Utopians are often criticised for being unrealistic dreamers, over-estimating human nature and assuming that all attempts to bring people together and build a nurturing community are inevitably doomed to failure. But even the most cynical might be prepared to admit that there have been glimpses of a better world in the various responses to recent events at Borough Market.

This has always been a rich tapestry of place, time and people; its producers, traders, customers and staff woven together by their shared love of food, markets, quality, pleasure and conviviality. This time of crisis has shown just how far those threads extend—across geography, across ages, across social divides—and reassures me, at least, that the social fabric of our Market hasn’t been torn by events like those of early June. If anything, it’s reinforced the value of this place and these people, and given new impetus to the many communities that are part of the Borough family to spin even stronger strands of connection for the future. Our Borough utopia is here to stay.