So, I am a writer in residence at the Tate modern. The Post began on the 1ts of January and will last for all of 2011. My previous residency was also for a year, posted at Covent Garden's Piazza to celebrate its 180th anniversary and this was written on the final day. 30th December 2011. My last day.
I arrive to find a street performer on his hands walking over and across four young boys lying flat on red carpets on the cobbled grounds. The crowd is united and clapping to the spectacle. Back on his feet, they fill his’s cap with five pound notes then dissolve into pedestrians. Another performer takes the stage wearing a kilt, holding a ladder and a wooden box, he begins to build the street magic again. I walk to the west side of the Piazza and there is a man bare chested save for suspenders, juggling a crystal ball with his elbows and a little girl is so swept into his performs she yells when her mother tries to feed her ice cream. There, I meet Davina and Jeanie biting hungrily into cornish pasties. They are from Little Hampton which they tell me is by the sea. Jeanie says her mum bought her an overnight stay in London for Christmas at a hotel just down the road. They arrived, dropped their bags and wandered up to the Piazza. They have not visited London in a year and a half. I suggest things to do and ask where in the piazza they had visited? Whittard, a shop round the corner. I follow their trail.
There, I meet Dunia who has worked here for five months. She is dark in complexion, open face, wide smile. She spells out her name, says it means ‘world’ in Arabic. She likes the atmosphere here, a great place to work but how sometimes, it does not seem a part of London. There is a queue building behind me, so I thank her for her time and follow a couple as they leave the shop, turn left and walk towards the pit where a string quartet strums the khan khan and has visitors dancing. The couple, Adam and Chloe from Derbyshire, came to see Ghost Stories at the Duke of York Theatre. Adam describes it as a really good show and deconstructs its structure: three short stories within a story. They come here once or twice a year for its atmosphere. Where else in the piazza had they visited? Regents Gifts. I follow their trail.
And it is a little shop of wonders winding out from a small staircase. It sells glass sculptures, hand-painted venetian masks with brass bells, scented candles, porcelain cats, leather jewel boxes, hip flasks and hand crafted cufflinks, there is something Aladdin-cave-like about it that counters Florence’s accent. She is French and speaks with the flourishes of her language. After introducing myself, we briefly talk about the Christmas period and her hopes for the New Year. A gentleman, older than I, buys a gift and I slip after him downstairs, back towards the pit where an opera singer has replaced the string quartet. I brush past a couple clenched and kissing, romanced by the tenor’s voice, turn left, left again and come against a crowd gaping at yet another street performer. This time it is a girl a pink leotard on stilts, juggling knives. There, I walk into Ludivine, introduce myself, but before I can speak to her, there is a sudden throng of human traffic and I am swept into an army of push chairs and laughing kids and hear snatches of conversation.
The lady immediately in front of me chats to her friend about a dress bought the night before. Two teenage girls discuss boyfriends. A man in grey slacks says to a boy in black jeans ‘do you know the nicest thing to do?... A young lady declares to an even younger one as the walk past, ‘you do not need anything, just masks, and you can tell stories’. A boy in bright yellow shoes shouts the word ‘sweet’. A man in a brown bowler hat points at the giant baubles dangling from the roof ‘look at these’. An older lady in a Russian ushanka says ‘I am not leaving yet, there’s so much to see’ and immediately to my right, a photographer captures the scene as I do: moments in time, snatches of life seized with his fingertips. There is still a lot to be seen here, over 300 languages are spoken in London, not counting the different inflections of English - from SouthLondon street-speak to East-End cockney, most pass through the piazza’s cobbled streets. Perhaps this is what Dunia means; It doesn’t seem like A part of London. It is ALL parts of London, all the time. I’ll miss this of the residency, these vistas of life, my vantage point to write and and the belief that strangers will share their lives. As I finish, a boy in a hooded sweater stops before me, asks what are you writing? I take down his name, where he’d come from, “this” I say, and thrust my notepad into his hands.
ps, here are some shots from Covent Garden's Anniversary Celebrations. [nggallery id=22 template=inua]