Supply Chains A letter from London

Text: Will Self

If, as I am, you’re the stupefyingly proud possessor of the ‘carte blanche’ awarded to frequent travellers, you can check-in for the Eurostar train service from London’s St Pancras Station to the Gare du Nord in Paris ten minutes before departure. And if you’re further privileged by being able to choose your departure time so as to avoid the great flux and reflux of tourists and commuters, then it can feel as if you’ve simply changed from one of London’s tube lines to another. True, when the Paris service emerges from the tunnel carrying it under the Thames, there’s the rather un-urban prospect of the Kentish downs, hop fields, oast houses and be-smocked carrot crunchers cavorting about to the noise of hurdy-gurdies – but soon enough this is obliterated as the train plunges under the Channel.

I spend almost every weekend in Paris, due to the geographical terms of my current endearment – and I also love working on trains; so, with my head down I often get to Paris convinced I’ve merely arrived in a suburb somewhere deep in the hinterland of South London. And why not? There are whole communities of Koreans, Japanese and Slovenians marooned in these red bricked and privet lined wastes, so why couldn’t there be quite a large French-speaking one, complete with reconstructions of Haussmannian apartment blocks and boulevards? My French isn’t fluent – but it’s good enough to get by; while under current globalised conditions, there’s an extensive crossover between the two cities’ commercial spheres, such that you can read the same ‘vertical type’ (as Walter Benjamin styled above-the-line advertising) in both.

The fast food chain Prêt á Manger perfectly illustrates this bizarrerie: founded in London in the early 1980s by a couple of Brits, the outlets offer hearty soups and sandwiches for desk-jockeys, but nothing especially Gallic. There are now just shy of 500 outlets worldwide, of which rising 20 are in Paris. Yes! Get this: actual French people are buying their sandwiches from a British shop called Ready to Eat (in French), you can’t get much more globalised than that.

Or can you? My girlfriend lives about a kilometre from the Gare du Nord in the Dixieme arrondissement, and while her immediate neighbourhood is far more densely built-up than leafy Stockwell (where I reside in London), both districts feature extensive immigrant communities, hipster bars, and are close to a mainline terminus. Last weekend we took the metro four stops out to Porte de Clignancourt in order to visit what’s perhaps the most glocal phenomenon the world has to offer. From the metro station we walked towards the flyover that carries Paris’s orbital motorway, the Périphérique, and beneath it we encountered a lot of African men – both from the north, and the sub-Sahara – flogging knock-off handbags, watches and a fine selection of other fake branded goods.

Since the latest eco-warnings about single-use plastic, people have become far more aware of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but given the world-girdling stream of migrants selling this tat, there surely must be some sort of Great Pacific “Gucci” Patch as well. Anyway, we pushed on through, and found on the other side the official Marché aux pouces: a huge complex of market buildings and stalls that covers several blocks, and which features everything from seriously expensive antiques to vieux hommes who’ve journeyed in from the most distant of bainlieues to sit at the side of the road with a mégot poised on their bottom lips and a couple of old engine parts displayed on the bit of cloth spread at their feet.

It’s these latter characters that make me feel most at home – because there’s a flea market in London that’s held every Sunday morning at the Nine Elms wholesale fruit and vegetable market, about a kilometre from my gaff. Here, among the stalls piled high with knock-off designer goods, you’ll find the British equivalent of these types: old men in from Essex and points still further east, who’re resisting the dehumanising pressures of globalisation in the only way they know how: by embodying their own supply chain – and then underselling. If, that is, there’s actually anyone who wants to buy an old alternator, or a used fan belt.

Anyway, I’m resolved to complete my warped psychogeographic go-round this coming weekend, by remaining on this side of La Manche and visiting the flea market: Will I feel as if I’m genuinely in London, or only in some north Parisian suburb – or, worse yet, in London®?


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