London, like the rest of the UK, and much of the rest of the world, is visibly changing in the current economic situation. The "credit crunch", the economic downturn, this recession we're experiencing; whatever you call it, something is happening which is performing drastic cosmetic surgery upon the face of our high streets here. Old staple stores, symbol of Englishness, are vanishing. Valuable real estate space stands empty and redundant.
One of the first and most horrifying shop to vanish was Woolworths. Nowhere else can one buy ridiculously cheap and dated CDs or DVDs, enormous or tiny photo-frames, school-clothes and collanders under one roof. Worse still, where is one to buy pick 'n' mix sweeties, short of the cinema? (And let's face it, you'd look rather strange just popping in to buy confectionary and not staying for the film.) Much as I could now write a eulogy mourning the passing of this deeply English shop, whose departure I was truly saddened by (reinforced by queuing daily for the bus outside its now dingy and empty shop-space), I would like to offer up a more positive tale of hope in these gloomy times.
Yesterday was Saturday, a sunny weekend day after a grim week at work. Deciding to make the most of my freedom and the kind weather I strolled to Chelsea, where I wandered the Kings Road in the sunshine. I shopped, I wandered, I perused, and then began my stroll home.
As I neared the World's End, well, end of the Kings Road, I found a little shop I'd never noticed before. People peered in through the window and a queue flowed inside, beneath a sign stating simply "LOVE". Keen to see what the fuss was about, and eager to set down my bags, I ventured inside. A tower of perfect cupcakes sat in the window, and a large case further inside displayed yet more; yellow, pink, blue, green, covered in sugar flowers, sparkling with glitter, alive with tiny butterflies. Along one side of the shop ran a bubble-gum pink bar with apple green stools beneath. A cheery blonde girl asked if she could help, so I ordered a cupcake and a coffee and sat down to observe the bakery traffic; yummy mummies, school children, teenagers, young professionals, an elderly gentleman who professed this was now his nearest place to get coffee. The stream of customers flowed in and out, conversing with the girl, and I guessed her father, who were in charge. They were obviously well known to many of their clients, and through their conversations I gathered that the shop had opened just that morning. It had taken a while to launch they said but their many clients wished them well for the future and promised to return.
Sat surrounded by the flowers and butterflies and pastels I felt slightly as if I was Alice, attending the Mad Hatter's tea party; a fairytale fantasy land of soft buttercream waves and vanilla sponge crumbs. It struck me as wonderfully brave to open any business during such an uncertain and pessimistic time. Yet these enterprising souls had gone one further, and created a frivolous luxury business, rather than cashing in on the unfortunate economics with a cut-price resale establishment, as have sprouted elsewhere in the city. Cheaper shops such as Primark are among the flourishing few. Obviously these bakers have picked their location carefully - they're on the Kings Road; expensive and inhabited by a lot of thoroughly wealthy residents, unlikely to notice the credit crunch is even occuring, ensuring a steady stream of cake-purchasing coppers into their till. I still felt that they were taking a risk, however, yet also providing a glimmer of hope and inspiration to Londoners to spend, to support local, independent businesses, and to indulge in fun and cupcakes. I am a huge believer in the healing power of cake, and left the bakery feeling cheered and encouraged. Spring may finally be sprung, new things are starting and the future may not be as gloomy as the media and politicians suggest.
As I gathered my bags to leave I watched a man walk past the door of the bakery, with a red and green parrot on his hand. First, Alice in Wonderland, now Treasure Island - what a fairytale-filled day! Following him down the street, I noticed he had a second, blue and yellow parrot, riding on his shoulder. They paused on the curb, waiting to cross a road, and I drew close enough to witness the blue and yellow parrot nibbling gently on the man's silk scarf, and whispering sweet parrot-y nothings in his ear.
I swear this all happened; it wasn't just the buttercream going to my head.